The Namesake (review)

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Family Adventure

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.

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Sun, Apr 01, 2007 5:14pm

I really enjoyed this movie–Mira Nair is one of my favorite directors–but I walked out wishing it hadn’t been filmed so linearly. I think it might have been more emotionally effective if it had been cut differently (and the preview was very misleading in that regard). I also felt that it was a little confusing in being both Ashima’s story and Gogol’s story–I think it might have been more effective if it had focused on one of them more, or interwoven their stories better. I don’t know. I liked it–and it was visually amazing–but I didn’t love it as much as some of Nair’s other movies.

One detail: I think Gogol didn’t so much want to Americanize his name (Nikul is still Indian) as lose the association with the weird Russian author.

Sun, Apr 01, 2007 9:39pm

I agree: the trailer *was* misleading — I, too, was surprised that the film was told in a linear way. But I ended up getting so caught up in it that I didn’t care.

“Nikul” may still be Indian, but it’s a lot more readily Americanized on the fly than “Gogol” — he can be “Nick,” but, what, “Goog”?

Sherry Fraley
Wed, Apr 04, 2007 1:35pm

You had me at “basketcase”, although this movie had me before reading your piece, as I loved Monsoon Wedding. (I really should see more of her work.) “Pack a pillow and blanket, and see the world.” That sealed it for me. I hope I remember Kleenex. Or some other brand of tissue.
Oh, and maybe not Goog, but Google? No. I wonder if anyone has named their pet Google, yet.

Wed, Apr 04, 2007 3:15pm

One of the things I really loved about this movie is that it’s about people who read, people to whom books are important, to whom books are friends. I don’t know enough real people like that.