TORONTO -- The fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri
conveys a sense of disorientation and loss, of melancholy guilt mingling with the embrace of freedom. She writes of the immigrant experience in America and the film adaptation of her first novel, "The Namesake", from director Mira Nair
honors her themes with a meticulous, understated, empathetic telling of the story of two generations of a Bengali family in America. What no film could probably do is get across Lahiri's rich descriptions of the quotidian that so vividly dramatizes the contrast in cultural ways of thinking and the identity confusions at the heart of her story. Nair's film settles for something closer to the surface that makes its dramatic points well and brings Lahiri's characters to life but misses the emotional intensity.
"The Namesake" is a highly personal film for its three authors -- Nair, Lahiri and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala
, all women of Indian origin who have lived much of their lives in the West. It is hard to imagine a better cast or production values so the film should find audiences among sophisticated urban adults. Certainly Lahiri's books have created a large fan base around the world for what is a universal story of a family in transition.
The Gangulis from Calcutta settle in New York in the 1970s after a traditional arranged marriage. When the couple has its first child, the task of naming the son falls to the grandmother of Ashima (Tabu). Only her letter never arrives from India and the hospital insists on a name for the birth certificate. So Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) names his son Gogol. This is the name of his favorite Russian author, but reason for that name goes deeper, back to a train wreck he survived as a young man in India.
It is Gogol's story we follow but his story also is that of his family. The first generation assimilates but never quite adjusts to the New World the way Gogol (Kal Penn
) and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair
) do. "I feel like I gave birth to strangers!" Ashima declares one day. Not only are accents different but the youngsters' attitudes toward dating and drinking and the American lifestyle must be checked at the front door.
Gogol hates his name. When he enters university, he goes to great bother to legally change his "good name" to Nikhil. This is how everyone he meets from this point on will know him. The name uncertainty and passion to change it, of course, serves as metaphor for greater questions of identity. For Gogol will forever lead a double life: He lives in yet feels estranged from two cultures.
Penn, a fine American Indian actor getting a crack at his first lead in a major film, brings wonderful comic sensibility to the role that makes Gogol a much more companionable and amusing companion than his literary counterpart. But when the moment arrives, where Gogol/Nikhil has to grow up immediately and take over his responsibilities, Penn shows you a man who discovers his Indian-ness. The lightness of his previous scenes gives way to a more somber and perplexed individual. It's a smart performance.
The older actors, Khan and Tabu, who perform mostly in Indian art-house movies, alter their characters too from the novel in subtle ways, suggesting more warmth and love in the parents' lives. Neither actor is Bengali, yet both are more than credible with the accent, language and manner of people from that state.
The movie makes one jolting leap from Gogol as a teen to his job and romance following university graduation with a degree in architecture. It's more than a little bewildering and suggests a drastic postproduction editing decision.
Consequently, Gogol's romances have been reduced to two: with a rich but really nice American named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett
), a woman who best expresses the social freedoms of the West, and Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson
), a fellow Bengali who demonstrates what can happen when someone living a dual life takes freedoms too far.
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes
and production designer Stephanie Carroll don't push the contrasts between New York and Calcutta; letting those locations speak eloquently for themselves. Nitin Sawhney
's Indian-spiced music is just right.
20th Century Fox
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Entertainment Farm/UTV Motion Pictures presents a Mirabai Films & Cine Mosaic production
Director: Mira Nair
Screenwriter: Sooni Taraporevala
Based on the novel by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Producers: Lydia Dean
Pilcher, Mira Nair
Executive producers: Yasushi Kotani
, Taizo Son
, Ronnie Screwvalal Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Co-producers: Lori Keith Douglas
, Yukie Kito
, Zarina Screwvala
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Editor: Allyson C. Johnson
Gogol: Kal Penn
Ashoke: Irrfan Khan
Maxine: Jacinda Barrett
Moushimi: Zuleikha Robinson
Sonia: Sahira Nair
Running time -- 122 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13