The Namesake

There are so many films about the American immigrant experience because the stories are so rich.  Whether the movie deals with new immigrants (like In America), or the ensuing culture clash between immigrant parents and Americanized children (like American Chai), moviemakers flock to these stories.  The Namesake is a bit different.  For one, it has an impressive pedigree.  The author of the best-selling novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 (for a different work).  Also, The Namesake spans two generations of one family, giving the movie an epic feeling.  The movie unfolds as a series of extended vignettes, skipping years at a time in the Ganguli household.  While the movie is extremely moving, the absence of a tighter, cohesive narrative means that The Namesake is only a good movie, as opposed to a great one.

The strength of The Namesake lies in director Mira Nair's (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding) casting choices.  Anchoring the film are touching performances by Irfan Khan (The Warrior, Mr. 100%) and Tabu (Fanaa, Shock) as Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli.  Nair and adapter Sooni Taraporevela (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Such a Long Journey) follow the two over a few decades.  The good thing about showing small life episodes is that it allows the viewer to step into the lives of the characters at critical or life-changing moments, and thus see how it affects them going forward.  This gives the characters a chance to grow; something that is extremely rare in a movie.  Both Khan and Tabu do a convincing job of aging - Ashima's accent changes over the movie, and Ashoke's voice seems to deepen with age.  When Ashima moves to America, it is easy to see the complete alienation she feels - she doesn't know the customs, and the only person she knows is Ashoke, who is away at work all day.

The most surprising actor here is Kal Penn (Epic Movie, Van Wilder 2:  The Rise of Taj).  It's not that Penn is a new actor - his resume is pretty extensive - but his role here as Gogol Ganguli is by far the most substantive role he has ever taken.  Most of his roles are typically as goofy stereotypical sidekicks, usually at the expense of his Indian heritage.  Here, he proves that he can do something deeper, and he does it well. Ashoke named his son after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. There is additional meaning, but the discover of what this meaning is is part of what prompts a soul-searching on the part of Gogol. Gogol didn't mind his name until high school, when peers began mercilessly teasing him.

Gogol deals with this by using his other given name, Nikolai, and unconsciously rebelling against what his parents expect of him. He keeps his distance from his close-knit family, preferring to spend time with his Caucasian girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett, School for Scoundrels, The Last Kiss). One of the central themes that Nair explores is a sense of belonging and identity. Both Ashima and Gogol feel out of place. Even after a few decades, Ashima does not always understand the country around her. Gogol is not quite Indian and not quite American. It is a universal theme that everybody can understand, and The Namesake is a movie that people will not soon forget after watching.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 2 minutes, English, Bengali, and Hindi with English subtitles, Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language.

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