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Friday, Jan. 4, 2008
Indian in America
Mira Nair's last film, "Monsoon Wedding," was not only a lot of fun, it was also a perceptive look at cross-cultural confusion, tracking the travails of an Americanized Indian guy back in Dehli for an arranged marriage. Her latest film, "The Namesake," flips the equation, following a young Calcutta girl who travels to America to be with her engineer husband.
Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, "The Namesake" explores life in a cold, foreign land and how a family comes together to deal with it, something that is both comforting, and constricting for the younger generation, since they have to balance their American identity with their Indian roots.
This sounds like your common immigrant-in-America story — and Nair is a populist director — but it's also more than that. It's an ode to what we take from our parents, and what we leave behind.
The story begins in Calcutta in 1974 where a student named Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan of the recent "A Mighty Heart") narrowly avoids death in a train accident. When he's found by rescuers, he's clutching the book he was reading, "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol.
Three years later Ashoke has recovered and is living in America, where he is studying engineering. He visits Calcutta to find a bride, and takes Ashima (Tabu), a singer of Indian classical music, back to New York City with him. The vibrant colors and bustle of Calcutta fade to the grays and whites of an urban East Coast winter, and Ashima wonders if she made the right move. But Ashoke proves to be a kind and caring husband, helping her to adjust.
Ashoke and Ashima move to the 'burbs and have children, a daughter named Sonia (Sahira Nair) and a son named Gogol (Kal Penn), after Ashoke's fateful book, a secret he never shares with anyone.
The years fly by and soon Gogol is in high school, squirming under the strange name he's been given, and generally being a typically sullen teen and rejecting his parents' culture. He takes on the name Nick instead (a shortening of the Indian Nikhil), starts dating a preppy blonde and avoiding the family home, before a shock sends him overcompensating in the other direction.
"The Namesake" moves along in a rather soap-opera way, driven by romance and parent-child conflict, while illnesses and death pop up to provide the tears. In "Monsoon Wedding," Nair consciously threw in a taste of Bollywood and, while less obvious here, in many ways "The Namesake" is a Bollywood film, minus the songs.
The emotions are almost as big, and the New York setting and heart-tugging plot twists aren't a million miles away from a film like "Kal Ho, Naa Ho."
In fact, Nair does include a bit of song and dance, a little parody where Gogol and his girl do some dance moves in their bedroom, but the scene breaks the film's realist tone to no good end.
The story's lessons — on learning to cherish your parents and your cultural heritage — come off a bit trite at times, but this is largely redeemed by the quality of the acting on display.
Irfan Khan, brings a quiet charm to his character, and conveys well the peace of mind of someone who has cheated death and knows that each day is a gift. Tabu, one of Bollywood's great beauties (see "Maachis," "Chandni Bar") moves from beaming young newlywed to deserted, lonely fortysomething with ease, and the connection she builds with Khan is touchingly real.
The big "if" is Kal Penn ("Harold and Kumar") in the role of Gogol, who's good at playing a sullen, petulant teen, but perhaps too good, coming off rather annoying at times.
As usual for a Mira Nair film, the soundtrack is a story in and of itself, with some great new music by Nitin Sawnhey, who's known for his Asian-inspired electronica but goes winningly acoustic here. The director continues to paint fascinating portraits of a changing Indian identity, both within and without the subcontinent, and "The Namesake" is a solid, if not exceptional, addition to her resume.