Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary; Deleted Scenes; The Anatomy of The Namesake; Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Kal Pen; Theatrical Trailer; Music Video.
MIRA Nair is the perfect choice to direct an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed first novel about two generations of a Bengali family struggling to adapt to life in New York, given that she moved to the Big Apple from Calcutta herself as a teenager.
But while there’s plenty to admire in The Namesake, it sometimes feels like a film of two halves; the first of which contains a strong emotional pull and the second which seems to be undergoing the same crisis of identity as its central character.
Perhaps it’s because Nair has so much to fit in that the latter half of proceedings feels rushed.
The film picks up in the 1970s as Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (played by Bollywood stars Irfan Khan and Tabu) travel to New York from Calcutta after an arranged marriage and try to immerse themselves in American culture.
The change is particularly difficult for Ashima to adapt to given that she’s left at home to reminisce about Calcutta while Ashoke goes to work. But the arrival of their first child soon gives her some focus.
The child in question is hastily named Gogol after staff at the New York hospital insist on something for the birth certificate, unable to wait for the Gangulis grandmother to decide. It’s a name chosen by Ashoke in honour of his favourite Russian author as well as a train crash he survived as a young man in India.
But it creates difficulties for Gogol (Kal Penn) once he comes of age and tries to fit in with his fellow New Yorkers. Far from embracing his heritage, Gogol rebels and determines to make his own way in the world until circumstances force him to rediscover where he came from.
The Namesake works well on many levels and never overplays the cross-cultural aspects of the story. Flitting between India and America, Nair prefers to let her cinematography do a lot of the talking, thereby allowing her actors to convey the innner sense of loss and disorientation that lends proceedings such an authentic feel.
The best work comes from Khan and Tabu, who expertly convey the fear and insecurity of starting a new life in a different culture and of being parents. Many of their scenes together are especially moving, while Nair even affords them a couple of unspoken moments that speak volumes for how they are feeling.
But Gogol’s story isn’t quite so engaging. Penn – who has made his name as a comic actor – sometimes appears to be struggling with the more serious elements of his character’s progression, especially since the two relationships he forms with women are fairly superficial.
Jacinda Barrett’s wealthy Maxine is under-employed and comes across as particularly uncaring during a key moment in Gogol’s life (supposedly representative of Western attitudes), while Zuleikha Robinson’s fellow Bengali Moushimi is also thinly sketched, particularly during the revelation of the affair that ultimately causes them to split.
When set against the context of his parents story, Gogol’s lacks the same impact – but then maybe Nair is also making a point about contemporary values and relationships, compared with more traditional values.
Viewers willing to take such flaws in their stride will still find plenty to relate to in the film’s many themes, while the cinematography means that the film always retains a beauty that’s never less than alluring.
Running time: 2hrs 2mins