A good movie tells a story. A mediocre movie wanders off to tell another story. A great movie manages to tell the same story from different perspectives. Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, borders on that greatness. Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay, combined with Mira Nair’s directing, give the film an easy intimacy. This movie feels like listening to your best friend.
Namesake is about being inclusive, and while inside jokes surely abound, they do not detract from the experience. There is still plenty with which to connect, from a mother’s loneliness to a son’s struggle to understand his parents.
Starting in the past, Namesake appears to tell the story of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) as they enter an arranged marriage. As the movie goes on, it switches focus to Gogol (Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar fame), the couple’s firstborn. The transition is elegantly done, showing exactly how interwoven the stories are between parents and children. And the parents are never forgotten, as the film returns to them again and again.
Gogol’s life seems to be almost clich‚ as the son of immigrants. It’s the twists that make each specific story different, that draw the audience in, and Namesake incorporates their twists beautifully to push the tale forward without ever taking you out of the moment.
There are only a few moments that leave you stranded. In the beginning, the jumps that introduce Ashoke and Ashima are unexpected. And later, watching Gogol grow almost instantly from high school rebel to professional architect is nearly as jolting. But worked around these moments are all the ones that are tangible, that make you reach out and touch the characters.
It starts with Ashima trying on Ashoke’s shoes, modeling them for herself in a Calcutta kitchen before she even meets him. It continues as young Gogol comes back from kindergarten insisting to be known by his second name, rather than the formal Nikhil, and thwarts his parents’ plans and traditions in a single, innocent day. And it runs all the way through the end of the film to Gogol’s acceptance of his family. These are moments that are crafted to reflect real life.
Gogol explores his identity through romance, forming two different but equally important relationships during the course of the movie. One is with Maxine, a stereotypical New England white girl who comes from privilege. Her lifestyle, as much as her personality, seduces Gogol. He declares, “I’m home” to her parents in their home and gives Maxine a Tiffany’s necklace within a short span of time. These scenes of perfect assimilation are immediately followed by stilted party conversation as someone asks Gogol when he moved to America, displaying the hypocrisy of American culture alongside its powerful allure.
However, this is a line that is seldom crossed. Interracial marriages are still powerful, scary things even in today’s supposedly enlightened culture. Maxine realizes in a poignant moment that no matter how much she opens up, no matter how hard she pushes, she will never enter the mysterious realm of the Bengali family.
Moushumi, however, faces no such issue. From the moment she appeared on screen as an awkward teenager, you knew she would reappear. And you also knew she would suddenly be a swan. There was no disappointment as the mothers contrived to set up their children. For Gogol, it was like falling back into the reliability of tradition. It was swinging back from his previous extreme, but the fall was bound to hurt.
This isn’t a film of fluffy endings. Making it into one would have been a travesty. Instead it’s a story of life – messy and painful and ultimately rewarding. Penn crosses successfully into drama, proving himself a versatile young actor. Tabu and Khan are veterans of the screen, and they make their talents plainly obvious for anyone who isn’t familiar with their Bollywood work. This is a movie that you will remember. You might even be inspired to find the book.