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
Truly Universal and Cathartic Adaptation of Lahiri's Time-Spanning Novel
Meticulously observed and wonderfully heartfelt, this time-spanning 2007 family dramedy represents a return to form for director Mira Nair, who faltered somewhat with 2004's elaborate "Vanity Fair". This one is also a literary adaptation but this time from a contemporary best-seller by Jhumpa Lahiri, who wrote an emotionally drawn story about first generation Bengali immigrants to the United States and their U.S.-born children. It's an intricate book full of careful nuances, and Nair, along with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, captures most of them in a most loving manner. The story speaks fluently to the universal struggle to extricate ourselves from the obligation of family and a perceived enslavement to the past. Nair and Taraporevala manage to transcend the necessarily episodic nature of the novel to make it an involving journey toward self-acceptance.
The film initially focuses on Ashoke Ganguli and his arranged marriage to Ashima, a classically trained singer. The young couple move from Calcutta in 1977 to Queens in order for him to pursue his career as an electrical engineer. The adjustment is difficult, especially for Ashima in assimilating into the often cold U.S. culture, and these quiet scenes show a keen eye for subtle observation. They quickly have two children in succession, son Gogol and daughter Sonia. Gogol's name is the key plot point as he was inadvertently after Ashoke's favorite writer, Nikholai Gogol, and this is revealed to have greater significance as the story unfolds. Eventually, the film switches the perspective to Gogol's as he grows up, changes his name to Nikhil and starts his life as a yuppie architect in Manhattan.
At the same, the film does not abandon Ashoke and Ashima as they remain significant figures in shaping Gogol's destiny, especially as the impact of a tragic turn brings unexpected changes. The cathartic aspect of these scenes is what makes the film powerful. Moreover, with her film-making experience in her native India and the U.S., Nair brings a seamless fluency to both locales. The movie falters a bit toward the end when it starts to ramble and feel pat, but the story's old world gravitas rescues it just in time. Beforehand I was convinced Kal Penn would be the spoiler in this film, but he gives a sharp, dedicated performance as Gogol. Poised to be taken seriously as an actor even amid his White Castle and Van Wilder movies, he seems a bit exaggerated only in the early teenage scenes which recall those other movies.
However, it is the superb work of Irfan Khan and Tabu as his parents that make the film soar. Both bring a level of assurance and compassion that ground the film completely, especially Tabu who makes the seemingly modest character arc of Ashima really striking. Playing yet another variation of the spoiled American girl, Jacinda Barrett again proves how fearless an actress she can be in exposing the vanity and ignorance of Maxine, Gogol's first serious girlfriend. As Moushumi, the Bengali girl who comes with the family's seal of approval, Zuleikha Robinson has a ripe presence to match her character's aspiring worldliness. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes and production designer Stephanie Carroll provide masterful work in capturing the diverse flavors of the different locales. This film is for anyone who has struggled to forge his or her own identity only to find the need to embrace the past, especially those of us who have parents who displayed the courage to move from their native lands.
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