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Movie Review: The Namesake

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March 2007
Movie Review: The Namesake

Mira Nair's latest film, a faithful rendering of its source material (the Jhumpa Lahiri novel), is the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, and their son, Gogol. Their story is like that of so many couples who came to the U.S. from India in the 1970s. They have an arranged marriage in Calcutta and immediately travel to New York following the wedding (it was Massachusetts in the novel), where Ashoke is a professor. Not too long after, they have a son, Gogol, and a daughter, Sonia, and a comfortable suburban life. But underneath all that, Ashima struggles to feel comfortable in a place that is not, at least initially, home, and Gogol (played by Kal Penn), with his tease-inducing name, grapples with meshing the Indianness of his life inside his parents' home, with the non-Indianness of his life beyond. As a young man out of college, he becomes such a fixture in the family of his wealthy, white girlfriend, Maxine, that when he walks in the door of their Manhattan place, he calls out "I'm home!"

Nair and Tabu's portrayal of the arc that Ashima's life follows, from young bride in an unknown country to mother to premature widow, is relayed without excess and with great depth. As Ashima, Tabu may not have a lot of chatty dialogue, but with the set of her mouth, or her open hands after learning of Ashoke's death—a gesture that seems to ask both "Why?" and "What now?"—and particularly in how expansively she seems to bloom one summer spent in Calcutta with the family, all say more than enough.

Irfan Khan's embodiment of Ashoke is equally uncluttered and spartan, but he too seems to be able to say so much about who Ashoke is, simply in the way he tells Gogol with resignation, "You do as you wish, anything is possible in America," as he stands and goes to the kitchen door to have a cigarette outside. In The Namesake, he plays the strong, silent Dad and will remind many watching the film of their own, as men of this generation were not encouraged to go on and on about their feelings to all those around them.

Mira Nair's eye for detail and gift for lyrical, beautiful shots are both at their zenith in The Namesake. The Ganguli family is not spectacularly wealthy, yet Nair's use of color and small touches are a rich delight, without detracting from the emotion of the narrative, or suffering from being too precious.

It is little things—like the flash of Ashima's anklets as she surreptitiously slips her feet into the wingtip shoes of the man she is about to meet and soon marry, the two young girl as they burst forth from a group of twenty or so relatives gathered on the tarmac at the airport to see the newlyweds off to America, or the framing of Ashima's hand against the frosty window on her first morning in New York as she waves to Ashoke out on the snowy street—that are treasures.


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