Local opening date: 3/23/2007
Reviewed by Martha Baker
Mira Nair has a directorial history of filming domestic movies. She made Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding, both of which can be called domestic dramas. The Namesake continues that tradition of looking at families and culture and the weaving of the two on two continents in two generations. The film succeeds as such a drama, but like others of this ilk, it can get a little claustrophobic, a little too intense.
The Namesake is based on the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri. Ashoke, played seriously by Irrfan Khan, and Ashima, played beautifully by Tabu, begin their arranged marriage by leaving Calcutta in all its heat and flying to New York on a cold winter's day. They do not know each other; neither does Ashima know New York. Significantly, her name means "with borders." Before the first year is out, Ashima gives birth to a boy, his head crowned with a shock of black hair, unlike the other white babies' bald heads in the hospital nursery.
The new parents are urged to name the child before leaving the hospital, so instead of following their Indian tradition of naming a child later with both baby name and a grown-up name, Ashoke picks Gogol, the name of one of his favorite Russian writers; the name links him to a grandfatherly man who encouraged him to travel back in India in 1977. "Books," Ashoke asserts, "are to travel without moving an inch." The role of Gogol Ganguli is played well by Kal Penn, who was also in Harry and Kumar Go to White Castle.
When he becomes a teenager. Gogol's already wavering on the pencil-thin line between being Bengali in his parents' home-away-from-home in New York and being an American teenager, dating a wealthy young woman, played by Jacinda Barrett, and cousining up to her parents. But before the story is over, he's had to come to terms with his mother and father and, therefore, with his own heritage.
As in Monsoon Wedding, Nair (FIRE) alternates humor with pathos in The Namesake. She knows how to show genuine cultural fear as well as cultural acceptance. In The Namesake she does this with the family's trip to Taj Mahal, where the cameras, under the direction of Frederick Elmes, fairly caress the white marble.
The Namesake does not depend on deep valleys and high peaks; rather the acting registers without exploding. Tabu performs very well as the mother, who takes a long time to find her way. Near the end Gogol's father's story begins to assert itself again. In "The Namesake, Nair keeps the strands of these stories taut whether single or braided.
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