DVD Release Date:  November 27, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  March 16, 2007 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  122 min.
Director:  Mira Nair
Actors:  Irfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn, Sahira Nair, Jacinda Barrett

The Namesake, from Indian director Mira Nair, reminds us of a film axiom:  Some of the best movies about the American experience have come from filmmakers born in other lands.

During the heyday of the studio system, prominent directors from overseas came to Hollywood and delivered indelible images of life in the United States. More recently, Ireland’s Jim Sheriden gave us the wonderful In America, and Asian filmmaker Ang Lee showed us a dark vision of the United States during the Civil War era (Ride With the Devil) and the consequences of 1970s hedonism and suburban malaise (The Ice Storm).

Nair found success a few years ago with Monsoon Wedding, which gave American audiences a colorful look at Indian culture. She faltered with the poorly received adaptation of Vanity Fair, but she returns to form with The Namesake, another literary adaptation and a multicultural film for a multicultural country.

This time, Nair bridges Indian and American cultures, spanning decades and generations. An Indian couple will move from Calcutta to New York, and from loneliness in their new homeland to the warm companionship of many. Their American-born children will be foreigners when visiting their parents’ home country, just as their Generation-X ways seem foreign to their elders. But the two generations (three generations by the end of the movie) will find common ground through the persistent love of a father and the shared connection of a Ukrainian novelist.

Irfan Kahn and Tabu star as Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, respectively, who, after an arranged marriage in Calcutta, head to America in the 1970s to build their life together. Their options are limitless, Ahsoke says, but Ashima’s countenance tells a different story, even as she proclaims, “I am very happy.” Her intense loneliness soon abates with the birth of the couple’s son – named Nikhil Gogol, after Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol. But the young man will grow up to embrace American ways, opting to be called “Gogol” (played by Kal Penn) rather than by his “good name,” Nikhil, as wished by his parents. (“With a president named Jimmy, there is nothing we can do,” says his father, in resignation.) He will defy his mother’s wish to marry a “good Bengali girl,” choosing the blonde-haired but oblivious Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) before pursuing Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a fellow Bengali whose free-spirited sensibility will present other problems for the couple.

The story’s shift in focus to Gogol hurts the film, even though his discovery of the deeper connections to his parents and their Indian customs drives his emotional growth. The film loses a step as Ashoke and Ashima move into the background of the story, for it is their romance – growing out of an arrangement between their parents – that gives the film its heart, and provides the contrast with Gogol’s dating life. While never boring, the movie’s narrative trajectory leads to familiar conflicts that come to life best when Gogol is wrestling with his parents’ expectations.

Nair’s attempt to condense Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel misses a few other beats. Leaps in time seem arbitrary, and attempts to draw distinctions between the first- and second-generation immigrants are too obvious (the son listens to heavy metal and gets high; both brother and sister find non-Indian lovers).

But the film’s color palette compensates mightily for any script deficiencies. Moving from vibrant reds and purples during the segments set in India to the drab snow-covered landscapes of America, before blooming again with reddish hues late in the film, “The Namesake” transcends its print origins in the one way all films should: through vibrant visuals. Another formal achievement – Nair’s placement of actors within the frame – keeps the viewer’s eyes actively wandering the entire film frame, absorbing the abundant riches on display. All of this gives the film a feeling of having been shot with a constantly moving camera, but the opposite is true. Nair has said her approach, in combination with cinematographer Fred Elmes, “conceived of each scene as a series of wide-angle shots, ‘democratic frames’ within which the actors, not the camera, would move in a choreographed swirl.”

It’s that “swirl” that remains after the film is over, a swirl that matches the immigrant experience, as depicted by Nair and written about by Lahiri. The overwhelming wonder of being in a new land and the isolation of the early days as they settle in lead to new shared experiences and practices that are passed on to children, and to the children’s children.

“Do you want me to say, ‘I love you,’ like the Americans?” Ashima asks Ashoke. But the loving look on her face tells Ashoke – and the viewers – all we need to know, demonstrating, as the movie does so well, that images can tell us more than the spoken word. In The Namesake, the words, at times, feel a little worn, but the images leave a lasting impression.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some profanity; a man extends his middle finger at another person
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Brief drug use and references to bloodshot eyes; cigarette smoking; drinking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A husband and wife have sex, but no nudity is shown; a woman puts on her dress in front of a younger sibling; a man kisses and has sex with his girlfriend (he’s bare-chested, but there’s no other nudity during the scene); the same man later has sex with another girlfriend, whose backside is shown; discussion of multiple affairs, and a confession of adultery; a provocative wedding-night dance, some kissing in bed.
  • Violence:  A train wreck, with victims pictured; a corpse at the morgue is shown. 
  • Religion:  An Indian funeral ceremony; human ashes are spread in a river; excited discussion of Joseph Campbell’s “Follow Your Bliss” philosophy; a ceremony for a newborn includes a reference to the foretelling of the child’s future; a reference to a deceased individual being “with us.”