Directed by Mira Nair, starring Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan and Tabu
Director Mira Nair has been enchanting audiences with her honest and sensitive take on life in and out of India ever since her 1988 breakthrough film Salaam Bombay! and her popular 2001 film Monsoon Wedding. Nair does not disappoint with her gentle adaptation of The Namesake (2006), a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.
The film begins on a swaying train travelling from Calcutta to Jamshedpur in the 1970s. We meet Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), who is reading a book by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The screeching of metal on metal follows, but Ashoke survives the accident when rescuers notice the flapping pages of his book amid the wreckage of the train.
After an arranged Bengali marriage, Ashoke takes his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York. When their first child is born, Ashima and Ashoke have no name for him. The letter from India telling them what to name their son has yet to arrive, so they give him the pet name of Gogol and the formal name Nikhil.
The film then leaps ahead. Gogol (Kal Penn) and his sister Sonia are now suburban teenagers. Gogol is American. His parents’ ways embarrass him. His odd name becomes a metaphor for his search for identity. When he leaves to study architecture at Yale, he changes his name to Nikhil and dates a well-heeled blonde.
This family portrait is painted with subtle strokes that leave no room for melodrama, even when tragedy strikes. Although unspoken, there is affection in the Ganguli household. It is a joy to watch Irrfan Khan and Tabu portray the Gangulis slowly falling in love.
Nair strays from Gogol’s storyline to contemplate Ashima’s homesickness. The bright shots of India show people everywhere, a sun-drenched and complex country always on the move. New York through Ashima’s eyes is grey, with dripping icicles and abandoned streets.
Despite the brilliant screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, the film drags slightly at times. Understanding the film will be easier if you know the novel, but the film stands on its own as a study of immigrant family life and an invitation to embrace Bengali culture.
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