Mira Nair does cities well. She’s taken us from Bombay’s cramped lanes of the red-light district, brought us to roam around Delhi in the footsteps of a family planning a big Punjabi wedding, and now back and forth between Calcutta and New York in The Namesake.
The movie opens worldwide in early March 2007 (New York and LA on March 9th), and has been glimpsed already at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and the New York-based Indo-American Arts Council’s festival in November, and there was a screening in New York earlier this month.
For some reason Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book never appealed to me enough to carry on after reading two stories, but The Namesake was a different matter and had me in tears when it ended. Her telling of the immigrant experience, airletters being read over and over, and the moment of fear when a phone would ring too late at night – surely someone back home must be dead – will be familiar to anyone whose family has come to the U.S. from another country.
The film has been remarkably faithful to the novel, the only small difference being that the Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli family was based in New England, not in New York, but I’m guessing Mira Nair may have made this switch – at least in part – so she could use the Queensborough Bridge as a backdrop for some shots, especially because, aside from being a shorthand for New York city, it serves to evoke the Howrah Bridge, which she cuts to a couple of times.
The Namesake begins with warm colors and Bengali script being painted on a canvas (as is seen on the movie’s website) and we see the young man, Ashoke Ganguli, following his suitcase and a porter to a train in Calcutta. It’s on this train that he meets a man who extolls the virtues of living in the UK (nobody spits on the street) and urges him to “pack a pillow and a blanket and see the world”. Ashoke, already reading his copy of The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol counters that his grandfather said that books are for travel, as they take you all over without having to move at all. Shortly after, there’s a serious accident and Ashoke is laid up for weeks, recovering from his injuries, and carrying the trauma of the event internally, through all his life.
In a short space of time after that, he meets Ashima (Tabu), and the couple marry, moving to New York, where Ashoke has been working. Nair’s film then settles in to show us how Ashima adapts to life in the US in the 1970s (for her first breakfast she takes Rice Crispies and peanuts drizzled in chili powder). When pregnant with her first child, Ashima looks out her hospital window, looks at the 59th street bridge and closes her eyes to see Calcutta. Amid some confusion with the hospital staff over good names and pet names and the grandmother’s choosing, the baby boy is hurriedly named Gogol.
It’s during these years that Mira Nair shows us not only the immigrant experience in the US, but also details of life in the city in that time period. Ashima trundles off through the streets of their Queens neighborhood in a sari and coat to do her husband’s clothes at the laundromat, shrinking them in the process. Ashoke shows her, on an old NYC subway map, how to get to the Fulton Fish Market. Smoking outside her hospital room, Ashoke wears a fabulous mustard color corduroy jacket with epaulets that is very much of the ’70s, and in another scene, now with a baby girl as well, the family picnics in winter by the ocean’s edge, all four of the Ganguli clan bundled up against the biting wind.
There are some good lines in the film that I don’t recall from the novel, for example Ashima comments, with disdain, how the school has permitted Gogol to opt to use his pet name – Nikhil – at school, complaining “Here, children make the choices” and Ashoke replies “With a president named Jimmy, there is nothing we can do.”
As Gogol and his sister grow, the family makes some trips to Calcutta, after Ashima’s father’s death and for a summer holiday when the kids are teens, typical for many emigré families, and Gogol grows to be a somewhat sullen teen and distant adult. He goes off to do his own thing – architecture, live with a wealthy white girl and be practically adopted by her family – and takes his parents’ love for granted, while spending occasional holidays with them, and being rather absent in the process, a common arc that many of our lives take.
While I remember the book being more focused on Gogol, the movie is really about Ashoke and Ashima for at least the first half, and that’s good. It’s in the portrayal of the many small details of their average lives that we see the love that grows between the couple. Irfan Khan and Tabu are solid here. Both play characters who do not say very much but who both express volumes in their eyes and gestures and simply in how they carry themselves.
Kal Penn as Gogol is fine when he plays the teenage boy using part of his graduation cap tassel for a roach clip, and he does well enough when called upon to express his grief at a key moment in the story, but in the rest of the film, I found the presentation of Gogol as hollow. I really wanted to like Kal Penn more in this role, but I never got a sense that he was feeling or thinking much of anything.
I did find the very fetching Zuleikha Robinson interesting as the Bengali girl that Gogol meets as an awkward teen and later comes to love and marry, after she’s blossomed into a woman of the world. (She’s also quite nangi in one scene…)
The look of the movie is beautiful. Not in the showy way that, for example, New York looked stunning in Kabhi Alvida, but rather in a more crisp and real way, and the small decorating details and costumes used to convey home life are dead on (the picture of Tagore on the Ganguli parents’ bedroom wall, the beaded curtain in Gogol’s teenage basement lair). The music by Nitin Sawney is a perfect accompaniment, as is the State of Bengal song Flight IC408 in one scene.
See it or skip it
See it, if you’re at all curious to see how one more director has expressed her take on Bengali/Indian American family life, or if you enjoy Tabu or Irfan Khan’s work. I found the movie touching, without being overly sentimental or mawkish.