If you’re not a basketcase of sobby, sloppy tears of sadness and joy by the end of The Namesake, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Maybe you’re from Mars… but then you’d be an immigrant, right? And you’d understand the conundrum of trying to fit into the culture in which you live without denying the culture from which you came. Maybe you’ve got no family… but everyone has family of one kind or another, either the one you’re born into or the one you build around yourself out of, you know, the basic human need to be social, and so you’d understand how we sometimes adore our families and are exasperated by them in equal measure. Maybe you’re a hermit who lives in a remote cave with no one but chipmunks for company… but then you wouldn’t be at the movies in the first place.
Look, this is a wonderfully universal story, one grounded in a specific culture and a specific moment in time that nevertheless unfolds into something with more and more poignant relevance the deeper you look into it. Yes, it’s about a Bengali family in the United States in the late 20th century… but it’s really about anyone who leaves the place and the people they grew up with to make a fresh start in a scary new world. Yes, it’s about one young Indian couple and how they dread to watch their American-born children grow up thoroughly American… but it’s really about that compromise that all parents and children negotiate that allows youngsters to be themselves while also honoring all that their ancestors have given them. This the American story right here, the uber tale of immigration, but even more than that, it’s the human story.
And it is magnificent, as you would expect from filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair), whose perceptive eye for the tiny, overwhelming moments that make up a life creates once again a tapestry of emotion that is both delicate and gut-wrenching, and that haunts you long after the film is over. (The screenplay is by Sooni Taraporevala, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s beloved novel.) The particulars of the intercontinental relocation of the Gangulis from Calcutta to New York in the 1970s will be familiar to fans of these kinds of flicks, and indeed to anyone who has experienced this kind of immigration firsthand: the strangest of the new culture; the loneliness of being removed from parents, siblings, and old friends; the all-too-infrequent trips home for weddings and funerals. But Nair effortlessly portrays small details — the tenderness with which college professor Ashoke (Irfan Khan) shows his young wife, Ashima (Tabu), around their strange New York apartment; her quiet horror at the briefness of her hospital gown during her first trip to the maternity ward — and they come to genuine life in a way that makes these people irresistibly real and undeniably unique even as the grand scope of everything that is happening around them and to them is nothing new to dedicated movie lovers.
The radiance of The Namesake is, throughout, in the beautifully realized details. Ashoke and Ashima watch as their children smoothly assimilate in a way that eludes them, and the heartbreak of it comes not in shouts or arguments — they are happy for the kids to be American — but in small disappointments that loom large. Their teenage son, Gogol (Kal Penn: Superman Returns, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), wants to Americanize his name, can’t bear to think of it on a resume or a credit card, and the calm acquiescence of his parents is tender and awful to behold, speaking, as it does, volumes about all that is so readily lost not just culturally but in the freedom parents need to give their children to live their own lives.
The most striking thing about The Namesake? Its unwavering optimism. “Pack a pillow and blanket, see the world,” goes the advice a young Ashoke gets from a stranger, advice that sends him to New York in the first place. “You will never regret it.” And there are no regrets at all here, which makes all that is lost and all that is unexpectedly found all the more sweetly distressing. The human story here is one of love that survives and thrives the more adventure and challenge is thrown at it.