Namesake, The (India/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Namesake is an affecting drama spanning two generations of an Indian American family and exploring the generational and cultural conflicts that arise as a result of their assimilation into society. By carefully developing her characters and allowing us to believe the exist beyond what is shown on screen, director Mira Nair is able to cover 25 years without making the audience feel that the plot leaps forward awkwardly or that story gaps are left unfilled. The Namesake is a chronicle not so much of events but of individuals and the ways in which tension develops between them and how each makes peace with who he or she is.

The film confronts common problems faced by immigrants. They come to the United States and make sacrifices so their children can have better opportunities. Those children, growing up under the umbrella of Western influence, often reject all or a part of their parents' culture. This can cause pain and anxiety and create rifts between generations. The parents see their children's actions as rebellious; the children view their parents as backward and clinging to outmoded lifestyles. The Namesake certainly isn't the first film to address this situation, but it accomplishes something that most other productions of this nature (such as Bend It Like Beckham) do not do. By opening the tale with the parents as newlyweds and beginning the story well before the children are born, we are able to see the conflict from both sides and to gain a more complete understanding of the issues and misunderstandings that arise.

The Namesake starts during the mid-1970s in Calcutta, where Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) are introduced to one another and enter into an arranged marriage. It is not a love match but, over the years, affection grows. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moves to New York, where Ashoke has been living for the past two years. Ashima is lonely and wants to go home but Ashoke does his best to make her happy. They have two children: Gogol (Kal Penn), who is named after the Russian writer (leading to the movie's title), and Sonia (Sahira Nair). Both of them grow up as Americanized as any of their Caucasian classmates, to the point where Sonia resents a trip to India when she is a teenager. They leave home as soon as they can - Gogol to live with his white girlfriend, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), and Sonia to go to college in California. But a tragedy reunites the family and forces the children to consider their heritage.

For Nair, this represents an opportunity once again to delve into the subject of societal melting pots and cross-cultural friction. Elements of the film echo themes Nair explored in Mississippi Masala and to which she has returned several times over the years. There is nothing preachy or strident in the way she approaches these issues. Instead, she takes a non-judgmental stance and depicts the real-life consequences such circumstances can have on those trapped on either side of the conflict. In The Namesake, the parents give their children more latitude than many first generation Americans. The result is greater freedom for Gogol and Sonia (even if they don't realize this) but more sadness for Ashoke and Ashima.

The acting is uniformly excellent. For the roles of Ashoke and Ashima, Nair has employed prolific Bollywood stars Tabu and Irfan Khan, both of whom give performances of great range and empathy. Tabu is especially popular in India; this is one of her first opportunities to display her talents to the international market and it is a favorable impression. Kal Penn plays Gogol as an adult and shows greater dramatic ability than one might have expected from someone whose best known credits are as a guy trying to find a hamburger joint and a stooge (with no dialogue) guarding Lex Luthor's back. Australian Jacinda Barrett once again plays the girl with all-American good looks. Nair's daughter, Sahira, is the adult Sonia and Rome's Zuleikha Robinson portrays another of Gogol's love interests.

The Namesake has a scope that many multi-generational stories lack. Often, it takes a mini-series to develop the kind of rapport with the characters that Nair achieves in a mere two hours. As is the case in real life, there are high points and low points, times of joy and times of tragedy, deaths and births, and marriages and divorces. We go through all of these things alongside the characters, seeing events through more than one pair of eyes and feeling emotions with more than one heart. It's difficult to overstate what the director and her screenwriter, Sooni Taraporevala, have achieved with this adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel. They have taken events specific to one culture and produced a movie that is universal in its appeal and thematic content. The Namesake is a rich and moving motion picture.

Namesake, The (India/United States, 2006)

Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Kal Penn, Tabu, Irfan Khan, Jacinda Barrett, Sahira Nair
Screenplay: Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Nitin Sawhney
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1