April 5, 2007


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The Namesake (PG-13)
Kal Penn, the Kumar half of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, is only one of many wonderful things about the layered and lovely tale of an American family in The Namesake, a movie based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri which I now very much want to read.

And how often does a movie actually make you want to check out the source material?

Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is traveling on a train in India in the 1960s while reading the works of Nikolai Gogol when the train crashes and … well, we get to the “and” part later. Some years later, we see him pay an awkward visit to the home of Ashima (Tabu). She’s a girl about his age and their parents eagerly praise their respective children back and forth in hopes of arranging a marriage. Ashima seems interested in Ashoke — before she even sees him, she takes a liking to his shoes — but it’s not until after their wedding as the new couple gets on a plane headed to their new home that she really understands what life as Mrs. Ganguli means. Ashoke is a professor at a college in New York, which means that Ashima is suddenly introduced to such oddities as snow, Laundromats and apartments with no relatives. Despite being almost strangers when they marry, Ashima and Ashoke seem to get along well, developing an affection that they dare not call love — that’s so American.

Of course, despite their traditional Bengali ways, half their family is American, the younger half. Children Gogol (Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair) are slang-speaking, slovenly, tousled-haired teens just like their peers. Gogol decides in high school that he wants to change his name to Nick, a nickname for his “good name” (Indians have “good names” and “pet names,” a practice familiar to anyone whose family includes a Guillermo or Carlos called Mimo or Tutos). And after college he dates an Anglo girl named Max (Jacinda Barrett) with WASPy parents and American manners that shock and amuse Ashima and Ashoke (one of the movie’s best scenes involves the Gangulis’ facial reactions to Max calling them by their first names when she meets them).

The Namesake introduces the immigrant Ashima and Ashoke and then the first-generation Gogol and Sonia and then lets their story unfold. The family’s relationships — parents and kids, Ashima and Ashoke, Gogol’s relationship with his own identity — develop in surprisingly subtle and natural ways. There are mistakes, there are surprising periods of growth and there are regrets. The movie never falls back on immigrant family clichés of cementing a character in the past or letting a personality assimilate faster that would seem natural. We see Gogol and Sonia approach their ethnicity in different ways at different ages, which makes sense — your feelings about something at 14 are seldom the same as your feelings at 24 or 34.

The movie is also subtle in the way it approaches ethnicity in romantic relationships. In addition to Ashima and Ashoke, we see Gogol with two different girls — Max and another Indian with a western upbringing, Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson). Race plays a different part in their relationships and impacts how they relate to each other in ways that are realistically messy.

As almost lyrical as the story in The Namesake is, the cinematography is equally lovely and enchanting. Saturated colors give us an India you can almost smell; the grays of New York help to accentuate the alienness of the landscape. A dulling of the colors for events of the past allows us to wander in and out of memory without clouding the events.

Without the heaviness or peg to historical events that usually comes with this label, The Namesake is an epic. It beautifully depicts the transition of a family from immigrants homesick for one country to a family firmly rooted in another. A

Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language. Directed by Mira Nair and written by Sooni Taraporevala from the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake is two hours long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight. The movie is scheduled to come to Wilton Town Hall Theatre and the Colonial Theatre in Keene in the coming weeks.