The Namesake, director Mira Nair’s visually elegant adaptation of the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, begins with a flashback. In mid-1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) boards a train to visit his grandfather. During the trip, he’s told to see as much of the world as he can by an older fellow passenger who says, “You will never regret it.” Ashoke, deeply immersed in a book by Nikolai Gogol, tells the stranger that he reads precisely to avoid such a fate, to visit places in his imagination instead of schlepping around in the real world. Moments later, the train violently crashes. The camera slowly pans the sprawling wreckage and rests on Ashoke, the lone survivor.
It’s an opening that might portend a supernatural story along the lines of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, but no; The Namesake is painstakingly human in its concerns. Topping that list of concerns is displacement, both geographical and cultural. Ashoke, the stranger’s advice echoing in his head during an extensive recovery from the accident, decides to schlep after all, moving to New York for a teaching position. He returns to India to take a bride, Ashima (the strikingly pretty Tabu), and brings her back to Queens. The early scenes of her adjustment (and lack thereof) to a new environment are among the most moving and beautifully detailed in the film.
When the couple’s son is born, the doctor alerts them that American policy in this situation differs from that in India: the baby has to be named before it leaves the hospital, even if the name is Baby Boy. In a burst of inspiration, Ashoke names his first-born after his favorite writer.
Flash forward several years, and a teenage Gogol (Kal Penn) is violently jumping up and down on his suburban bed to Pearl Jam’s “Once,” one of several behaviors that mystify his traditional father. When the family visits India, Gogol tells his mother that he refuses to be pulled in a rickshaw, as it dehumanizes the person pulling it. Eventually, his rebellions become even more personal, and finally, he wants to change his name.
The Namesake represents a fairly sudden lunge at credibility for Penn, who’s previously lent his goofball charm to comedies of the asinine and somewhat-less-asinine varieties (Van Wilder 2 and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, respectively). And his performance here is mostly credible, but he draws the short end of the plot. The first half of The Namesake is the considerably stronger one, as it traces Ashoke and Ashima’s trying but tender start in a new world. Khan and Tabu both turn in terrific, mature performances, the type that Penn may grow into. Here, though, he’s a bit green, and when the movie gets around to focusing mostly on his character’s life, the script takes a turn for the soft-headed. Gogol’s internal conflicts are meant to represent those of most first-generation Americans, but those conflicts could have benefited from a bit more subtlety. It’s not enough that Gogol (now going by Nick) dates a blonde beauty named Max (Jacinda Barrett); when he visits her family in a tony Long Island burb, her parents have to look like the type of beatific middle-aged early retirees featured in erection-drug ads, sitting in wooden chairs on a perfectly manicured lawn, a healthy, bounding dog by their side, happily welcoming Nick into the glossy catalog pages of the Good American Life. And when, spurred by a personal crisis, Nick begins to question the abandonment of his roots and to embrace his Indian heritage, Max has to quickly sum up their alienation from each other by saying, “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”
In short, The Namesake becomes a bit too schematic for my taste, but it does manage to leave an impression. At its worst, it’s sentimental and predictable in forgivable ways. At its best, it’s a sumptuous reminder to honor both your family and yourself as best you can, and to live without regrets.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
The Namesake / John Williams
Film | April 26, 2007 | Comments ()