Revisiting 'The Namesake,' That Other Phenomenally Meaningful Film About Asian-American Life, After the Success of 'Crazy Rich Asians'
I’ve written before for Pajiba about my pop culture-related firsts as an Iranian-American woman — of feeling like the pop star M.I.A. truly represented me, of crushing on Aladdin until Hollywood finally decided to accept a real-life brown actor, Riz Ahmed (now in the Pajiba 10!), into their midst, and of the fury of that “Whoa, Muslims are people?” Roseanne episode.
I’m tired of writing about firsts, of realizing that the opportunities and victories that came so often for the white status quo have taken so long to reach us. That’s why Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians feel so triumphant, but also slightly bittersweet, too — of course the demand is here for these stories. Remember Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk? Accepting only a single story is an acquiescence to an insidious threat. Power does not come from sameness.
Crazy Rich Asians beating a Mark Wahlberg film at the box office is vengeance.— E. Alex Jung (@e_alexjung) August 14, 2018
… I got to thinking about another movie about a generational gap between an Asian old-country family and first-generation kids, about the expectations placed upon children by their parents, about the interior struggle between centuries of history and the appeal of living only in the now. That movie is The Namesake, underrated as hell and grippingly beautiful and overwhelmingly moving. Why don’t we ever talk about The Namesake?
We don’t respect Mira Nair like we should. The Indian-American director never seems to get mentioned alongside Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola or Lynne Ramsay or Patty Jenkins or Jane Campion and I could suggest that it’s because she’s not a white woman and her work was being released in the early ’00s, when it didn’t seem like intersectional femininity was as discussed by the mainstream as it is now, but I don’t know, I don’t want to make that assumption, but sometimes in my more cynical moments it feels right. I interviewed Nair for my college newspaper when The Namesake was released in 2007, and I can’t find my notes now or a link to the article and I’m low-key devastated by that, but what I remember is her grace, how she fixed her gaze upon me while I stammered out my questions, how she let me gush about how much her film meant to me without making me feel embarrassed. Nair would go on to direct The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s book, with Riz, and Queen of Katwe, the beautiful Disney film about a Ugandan girl excelling at chess that starred Lupita Nyong’o but that couldn’t even make back its $15 million budget. I haven’t heard about any future projects Nair is working on, and sure, she’ll always be remembered for Monsoon Wedding (it’s in the Criterion Collection! that’s a big deal!), but to me, The Namesake is her masterpiece.
An adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake was released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, their first release in 2007, followed by Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, and the sequel 28 Weeks Later, and the mega-successful musical Once, and the Keri Russell-starring Waitress, and Sunshine, a movie that really fucks, and The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s kind of fetishized attempt at capturing India, and The Savages with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and this little movie you may have never heard of, Juno.
2007 was a great year for Fox Searchlight Pictures! I’v seen all those movies! But The Namesake had almost incomparable depth in its exploration of the Ganguli family and their life in the United States: father Ashoke (Irrfan Khan, who a friend of mine bumped into at Sundance one year, and had him call me, so I could cry to him about how perfect his performance in this movie was), who moves from Calcutta to Cambridge, Mass., with his wife Ashima (Indian film legend Tabu), after a brief courtship. As they adapt to their new life — new language, new customs — they have two children, a son named Gogol (Kal Penn) and a daughter named Sonia (Sahira Nair).
From the beginning, Gogol feels separate from his family, not only because of his name — the significance of which he doesn’t understand, and which isn’t explained until later in his life, during a heart-breaking exchange with his father — but because of his yearning to be American, not Bengali. He asks to be called Nick at school. He doesn’t attend MIT, like his father did, but Yale. He dates a white woman and spends time with her parents and ducks calls from Ashima. His identity is in flux, and his discomfort is not just with what he perceives to be his own family’s otherness, but how other people view that otherness.
Gogol spends his early adulthood attempting to mask his difference, and it’s only a family tragedy that forces him to realize what he’s rejected and the person he’s avoided becoming. Suddenly those cultural traditions that seemed so irrelevant hold meaning, and the second half of The Namesake explores Gogol swinging in the other direction, throwing himself into Bengali customs. But the point of both Lahiri’s novel and Nair’s film is that people don’t exist in either extreme but in the in-between — broadly, as a hybrid of American culture and that of the country where your family is “originally from” (as I’ve been asked condescendingly so many times), and specifically, as a combination of your parents’ preferences and your own.
That’s captured most achingly when Gogol learns that his name was inspired by his father’s choice of reading material during a devastating train crash, when so many around him died but he survived:
And suddenly the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”
“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”
The Namesake builds its narrative around these one-on-one conversations in which people who are often quite guarded finally spill out their deepest emotions, and I thought of that unexpected intimacy during nearly every scene with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor and Constance Wu’s Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians. These are two women who both love the same man but who approach what that love means very differently, and their exchanges on those palatial stairs or doing that climactic mahjong game are all about what they’re willing to admit about themselves and what they’re willing to give up.
There’s very little genre overlap, on paper, between a family drama like The Namesake and a romantic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians, but they each paint a portrait of Asian life through gorgeously realized details from Lahiri and Nair and Kevin Kwan and Jon M. Chu.
Ashima stepping into Ashoke’s leather shoes when he comes to court her, imagining the life she could build with this man.
The tinkling of mahjong tiles when Rachel tells Eleanor that the future she wants for her son Nick (Henry Golding) is only possible because Rachel, an “immigrant nobody,” turned down his proposal.
Ashoke’s hand, gripping a page of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, reaching out from under the wreckage of a derailed train.
How Rachel’s mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua) reaches for her after her final conversation with Eleanor, holding her daughter under her protection.
What Lahiri says about memory and identity in The Namesake applies to both narratives, I think:
“They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”
Asian and Asian-American life is complicated and nuanced and varied — it’s a gigantic continent with dozens of countries, dammit! — and Crazy Rich Asians is worthy all the accolades it is receiving. But The Namesake should be remembered, too. We deserve more than a single story.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Getty Images, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fandango, Warner Brothers Media