The Reeler


March 9, 2007

The Namesake

Coming of age means coming to terms with ancestry in Nair's lovingly embroidered adaptation

Name change is a fascinating, complex part of the immigrant experience, one often overlooked in favor of the more pressing adjustments -- to food, weather, culture, abiding loneliness. But is there a more potent signifier for identity than, say, one's I.D.? Names have varying levels of social and political significance in different cultures, and while in North America we may pride ourselves on the opacity (if not the uniformity) of our names (you may be able to discern someone's nationality, but not his social rank, or the town where she was born), noses still turn up according to the strange and often ephemeral ideas we have about names. Coming to a new country prompts decisions about how seriously you will attempt to assimilate, right down to the name you answer to; sometimes that decision is made for you at the border (as it was with my family). The Namesake, Mira Nair's lovingly embroidered adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel, follows the experience of one bifurcated Indian family -- the parents are Indian-born, their children apt Americans -- as they struggle to relate to one another, literally. That battle often takes place at the site of a name, the seat of a binding identity.

The film opens in 1977 Calcutta with a marriage (Nair's intent joy in depicting the ritual is as central as ever), or rather a meet cute sans the cute; Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) are a match made in the living room, by their parents. After the wedding, the couple move to New York City, where Ashoke has a teaching position. Khan and Tabu have a delicate, charming rapport, and the early scenes of the couple at loose ends with each other and their new life are natural in their rather amusing (to Americans) tentativeness; they are married, after all. When their firstborn son arrives, they decide to call him (but not necessarily name him, as Bengali children aren’t officially named until age six) Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, the author whom Ashoke was reading when he survived a devastating train wreck years before. As a boy, Gogol decides he likes his name, and would like to keep it, a decision the more worldly young American will come to regret.

Flashing forward 10 years, Gogol, with his younger sister Sonali (also called Sonia, played by Sahira Nair), is one half of a greasy, surly teen machine terrorizing the Ganguli home. Played by Kal Penn (better known for his less sober work in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Son of the Mask), Gogol is bunched up and bratty, speaking in bored monosyllables to his parents while railing to his friends that no girl is ever going to make it with a guy named "Gogol Ganguli." Gogol and Sonali suffer the whims of their terminally Indian parents, including the summer trips to Calcutta.

Moving in episodic fashion between the lives of Gogol and his parents, Nair builds, with varying delicacy, a tension around the cultural wall being erected within the family. "Why did you marry me?" Ashoke asks Ashima, some 20 years on, and she bridles gently: "You want me to say I love you, like the Americans?" After Gogol broaches the topic of changing his name, his father ruefully encourages him to do the "American thing"; when the Ganguli name on their mailbox is vandalized into "gangrene,” the family unites in outrage, and yet in its isolation, the incident hints too vaguely at a community’s attitude toward a family who spend a lot of energy setting themselves apart.

Gogol takes doing the "American thing" all the way: before going to Yale he changes his name to "Nik," and seems to instantly procure a posh girlfriend named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett, in a yucky blonde wig), who proves his point by illustrating the purrability of his new handle. Nair presents Maxine's family as a cavalcade of big-city privilege (when parents Gerald and Lydia invite Gogol to celebrate his birthday at their summer home in Oyster Bay, he Gatsby-s out, embracing their world without any of the reservations of that novel's Nick), and their one-dimensionality feels unfair and out of step with the emotional generosity of the rest of the film. Maxine's visit to meet Gogol's parents is a faux pas fiasco, and it seems the mere presence of a blonde American in his home finally prompts Ashoke to tell Gogol the story of how and why he was named.

It is a curious and crafty decision on Nair's part to make an arranged marriage the most successfully sustained relationship in the film. While Gogol becomes disenchanted with his fatuous debutante (it seems hard to believe that someone of supposed breeding would sport a black tank top to a traditional Indian funeral, as Maxine does) his choice of a mother-approved Indian bride doesn’t fare much better, despite their super-fabulous Bengali wedding; I suppose her decision to keep her own name was, somewhat ironically, a bad sign.

Nair's heart, appropriately, is equally apportioned in the Calcutta and New York scenes, and both cities vibrate with life and color. Though The Namesake slackens in places, particularly toward the end, the performances, especially those of Khan and Tabu, are beautifully drawn. “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat,” Ashoke tells his hangdog teen son, attempting to impart the weight of the novel he has just given him. “Someday you’ll understand.” Coming of age for so many Americans means coming to terms with one's ancestry: for some the generational path back home is longer than others; The Namesake is a heartfelt reminder that there are shortcuts for none.

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