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Premieres & Events

Nair Gets Local with Namesake

Mira Nair on the set of her latest film, The Namesake (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

The Reeler dropped back by Tribeca Cinemas this week to check out a preview of Mira Nair's latest, The Namesake. Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film follows 30 years in the lives of the Ganguli family of Calcutta -- from the arranged marriage of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) to their relocation to New York and onward through the raising of their son Gogol (Kal Penn) and daughter Sonia (Sahira Nair), both of whom waver in their adherence to both Indian and American cultures.

The film exercises Nair's trademark naturalism while managing a (mostly) credible run across three decades. Bollywood stars Khan and Tabu are both outstanding as a couple as committed to tradition as they are befuddled by the Western-style parenting that their kids' assimilation forces them to adopt. A more subtle contrast emerges between the Gangulis' suburban lifestyle and respected standing among their Indian-American neighbors; Nair forgoes the macrocosm of community for a more intimate, telling glimpse of transition.

"We don't seek to show you everything there is about the South Asian culture," she told The Reeler of The Namesake's more mainstream New York locales and motifs. "What was interesting to me in reading The Namesake, also, was that it was much more the world that I inhabit -- whether it be SoHo or the galleries or walks in the park or book readings -- than, say, Queens or Little India. That was interesting to me. I was interested in seeing people in bars and in the streets -- negotiating a SoHo loft for a white friend who has a world that you shared in college. That kind of world was as interesting to me as anything. What I meant by that earlier was that the family's world was one world in suburbia, and Gogol is negotiating a newer world much more related to my world here in Manhattan."

By the same token, as with Nair's Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, the cultural experience in The Namesake is its own densely layered character -- one with whom uninitiated viewers (and perhaps even Nair herself) must familiarize themselves on the fly. "People should step up to plate and experience the world -- and experience us," she said. "We are as you are as human beings. I'm not going to purposefully do that kind of explanation. But I'm also a filmmaker, so really, what we do is we have this dialogue -- we have all that in the film. And then I try to take it away, you know? I really try to make nonverbal films essentially. Films that take you into a world and a place, and you understand that thing but you don't have to be lectured about it or hear about it too much. You're in it rather than being told about it. Number one, that is my instinct as a filmmaker.

"I just have an attitude about not explaining my world," she continued, "but showing it or revealing it or speaking of the commonality of it and hope you understand. That's why Monsoon Wedding had three languages in one sentence. If ever anyone had to finance it? And later, if I had people to listen to? They never would have allowed it. They would have said, 'Come on -- how do I accept that? What do I do with this?' But that is how we talk, you know? It didn't seem to bother anybody when it came out. So it's like that: If you do it with a certain grace and certain kind of clarity, then people get it."

The Namesake opens in New York March 9.

Posted at March 1, 2007 12:35 PM

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