An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.
While traveling by train to visit his grandfather in Jamshedpur, Calcutta born, Bengali-speaking Ashoke Ganguli meets with fellow-traveler, Ghosh, who impresses upon him to travel, while Ashoke is deep into a book authored by Nicholai Gogol. The train meets with an accident, and after recuperating, Ashoke re-locates to America, settles down, returns home in 1977 to get married to aspiring singer, Ashima, and returns home to New York. Shortly thereafter they become parents of a boy, who they initially name Gogol, and a few years later both give birth to Sonia. The family then buy their own house in the suburbs and travel to India for the first time after their marriage. The second time they travel to India is when Gogol and Sonia are in their late teens, and after a memorable visit to Kolkata and then to the Taj Mahal, they return home. Gogol falls in love with Maxine Ratliff and moves in with her family, while Ashoke spends time traveling, and Sonia moves to California, leaving Ashima... Written by
An enduring story of love, courage and struggles faced by American immigrants
We arrived early for the movie. The city of Stamford in Connecticut boasts a big Indian population, due partly to the presence of many large firms. It's proximity to NYC makes Stamford a fitting place for immigrant settlements. Surprisingly, contrary to expectations, Americans at the Namesake showing far outnumbered their Indian counterparts. I could not help observing the sombre look on the faces of the visitors as they left, and I convinced myself that this wasn't another ABCD-flick as some reviewers had complained. I grew up in Calcutta, and such movies, although rare, is a chance to revisit a treasured past, a temptation I couldn't resist.
The movie, to some extent portrays an almost autobiographical recollection of Jhumpa Lahiri's experiences as an young adult growing up in Philly. She was born "Nilanjana" (as her good name), but due to a chain of events, her 'pet name', Jhumpa persisted, being both terse and less cryptic than her more Indian-ised first name. Nikhil (or Nick), played wonderfully by Kal Penn, faces a similar dilemma. Named Gogol, by his father in memory of the Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, Nikhil finds himself estranged by his unusual non-American name in the midst of the American culture. He tries, in vain to convince his parents that he should change his name from Gogol to Nikhil. Gogol's father, played by Irfhan Khan, genuinely believes that there could be a name no more fitting for his son. The name carries a strong emotional value for him, which, understandably the Americanised Gogol cannot relate to.
The story outlines the stark differences between Indians raised in the States trying to embrace parental Indian values whilst also seeking inclusion in the American way of living. As such, this leads to a hybrid of Indian vs American ways of living, oftentimes leaving young adults direction-less in times when their Indian-ness is challenged. The movie is extremely realistic and offers no bollywood style twists or long drawn Hindi pop songs. Instead what you get is raw emotion, real struggles and a frightfully original storyline.
Irfhan Khan, plays a moving role as a parent trying to come to terms with his son's Western outlook. Alas, he's not able to inculcate his ideals into Gogol, and the phrase "In this country, you can do what you like" is oft repeated to pardon Nick's un-Indian disposition. Gogol's mother, Ashima, played again stirringly by Tabu, is the story of a mother adopting to an American lifestyle in Queens with her husband. Although, Tabu is a well known Bollywood star, her acting in this movie bears little semblance to Bollywood-ish pretension.
She is very real in her role of a mother trying to make ends meet, to accept her son's boycott of Indian customs, and his independent lifestyle. In India, where family values are closely guarded, the notion of separation from children is not so commonplace as it is in the Western world. It is even more challenging in America, where Indian parents have their immediate families as their only ties to homeland. In the movie, Tabu echoes the loneliness that families and immigrants feel abroad, made worse by revolting kids who don't understand their point of view, and the hardships they face that are dealt with resolution and immense strength of mind.
The original theme, although Indian, must not detract the viewer into thinking that it is reserved only for immigrants. Albeit, Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her book, Interpreter of Maladies, layers an otherwise plain story with human emotions and displays of courage and trials that are so honest, one can relate to them effortlessly and draw parallels with one's own experiences.
Last, but not the least, I must mention of Mira Nair. She has spun yet another masterpiece following Monsoon Wedding bordering on the immigrant theme. Mira Nair, who spent her early years in Calcutta was able to depict the Bengali theme effectively. The choice of cast is excellent and not for a moment did I feel that the movie was directed by an "Indian" person, in fact it was just as unbiased and forthcoming as other good Italian or French movies I have seen. There were also scenes of the Victoria Memorial Hall of Calcutta, scenes of Howrah Station, the Howrah Bridge and other locations that are readily identifiable with the city. Indeed, her class is distinct from the rest of Bollywood and Indian wannabes who sport themselves as literary and movie geniuses, the like that are commonly spotted in Westport and Greenwich, CT.
I'm very conservative with my reviews, but this is a movie that deserves an 8/10. When we left the movie theater, the audience was silent and couples walked slowly and grimly out of the theater. It was, to me a testimony to how moving this film was, and I'm sure it will dwell in your memory a long time to come. Cheers to Nair, the cast, and Lahiri for a great collaboration and a timeless movie.
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