'Namesake': Fine and Strong Threads of Cultural Identity

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Like the best-selling novel it's based on, "The Namesake" chronicles two generations of an Indian immigrant family with compelling flow. As the Gangulis' births, marriages and funerals become a steady stream, we realize the currents affecting their lives are not so different from those shaping ours.

Given the impatient metronome of movie storytelling, Indian director Mira Nair and her screenwriting partner Sooni Taraporevala manage to telescope the book's extensive narrative into a two-hour experience. The result: We are moved by the movie's themes of cultural displacement and the power of chance but also aware -- whether we've read Jhumpa Lahiri's 2003 book or not -- that "Namesake"-the-movie frequently alludes to complexities it doesn't have the screen time to fully explore.

The movie's fateful course begins in the late 1970s on a train to Calcutta when Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), as a young man, meets a fellow passenger -- the kind of auspicious figure we usually find in fairy tales -- who encourages him to see the world. It is the combination of this chance meeting, the calamitous event that follows, and the short story by Russian realist Nikolai Gogol he is reading at the time that sets Ashoke's future. After marrying Ashima (Tabu), a soft-spoken Calcutta bride, he immigrates to America and starts a new life.

For the newlyweds, building a family -- a spiritually absorbing calling under normal circumstances -- becomes almost mythic as they exchange the warmth and tradition-bound familiarity of Calcutta for the coldness and secular lifestyle of New York. For the Gangulis, virtually everything seems fraught with cultural foreboding. A gas oven that works 24 hours a day? Public displays of affection at the dinner table?

At the other end of the immigration spectrum are the son they name Gogol (played as an adolescent by Kal Penn) and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair, no relation to the director), who grow up as Americans and must negotiate their own roads to multicultural self-awareness.

This dialogue between cultures echoes the theme of most of Nair's films. Her debut feature, "Salaam Bombay!," set among the impoverished street kids of that city, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988. Her delightful "Mississippi Masala," "The Perez Family" and "Monsoon Wedding" invoked an ethnic rainbow of characters from the Deep South to Uganda, India to Cuba. Even 2004's poorly received "Vanity Fair," which starred Reese Witherspoon, takes its English heroine to India.

In these films, and "The Namesake" in particular, Nair treasures the sanctity of all cultures, discouraging assimilation and suggesting that happiness comes from the embracing of both worlds.

In "The Namesake," no one illustrates this dualistic dilemma more clearly than Gogol. The Americanized teenager, smoking pot and chafing about his name, grows up to become a Manhattan architect, horrifying his parents with his American girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), who calls them by their first names. But then a significant family event brings him face to face with the culture he's avoided, and Gogol is soon bedecking himself with marigolds and shaving his head.

Unfortunately, much of Gogol's life, including a significant relationship with Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a very cosmopolitan Indian woman, whizzes by without the cumulative heft found in Lahiri's novel. (Sonia, his sister, gets even less time.) As Gogol transitions from infant to college student to married adult in jarring time jumps, it's harder to connect with him than his parents, whose scenes are given fuller, organic measure. In its final stages, the movie feels rushed, as if the filmmakers have an eye on the clock.

Nair succeeds in casting a glowing sheen over the movie, deftly imbuing it with sensuality and stylishness. There's a scene of lovemaking conveyed entirely with hands, bangles and red-etched feet that echoes the strategy in her movie "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love." And the warm, spirited performances bring us close to the story.

Penn, who many audiences will recognize as one half of the duo in the very funny "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," is thoroughly convincing as Gogol. And Khan and Tabu, both household names in India, make a tender, affecting couple.

They face the challenge of subtle roles: Khan must play a man whose quiet, intense passion makes itself known in minimal gestures and inflections. And Tabu deftly draws us in, as an old-style wife who mostly keeps her pangs of homesickness and unspoken aspirations to herself. It is their slow-burning romance, which grows from an arranged marriage to true love, that lights the way for the generations ahead.

The Namesake (122 minutes, in English and occasional Hindi with subtitles, at AMC Georgetown and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual scenes, drug use, some disturbing images and profanity.

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