Set in the 1970’s, the Namesake chronicles the experience of early Indian immigrants to this country and their children and how each generation deals with the challenges of assimilation differently.
Ashima, a young woman from Calcutta, follows her new husband Ashoke to New York. Their relationship is a product of an arranged marriage, a practice not uncommon in India even today. Ashima and d Ashoke quickly have two children Gogol and Sonia. Thus starts the story of the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family living in a foreign land.
The movie spans two generations in approximately two hours and twenty minutes. It therefore must move along at a clipping pace, which it did. As a result, I felt that the characters were not fleshed out enough. They lacked complexity and depth and therefore seemed almost like caricatures. Not what you would expect from Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing or Mira Nair’s interpretation.
One phrase that summed it up for me was that it lacked the unexpected. It was a story of first and second generation Indian Americans. The former work hard to create something out of nothing, give their kids the good life here in America, who don’t really get it. As I said, nothing unexpected.
One can juxtapose this against “The Monsoon Wedding” where each of the characters has such life that you empathize with them, feel for them, love them or hate them. In “The Namesake” you see the entire movie without feeling any real intense emotion for the characters, which for me is the cornerstone for any story well told.
Having said that, I would certainly recommend the movie. There were many light moments where depending on which generation you are you’ll find amazingly funny. My favorite scene was when the father explains to the son why he has named him Gogol.
I do recommend you read the book before or after as I will to fill in the blanks…..enjoy!
Editor's note:The Namesake is made for western audiences and made with western sensibilities. The images are both exotic and familiar depending on who’s watching. To the Indian who has undergone this experience, it will bring a sweet sense of nostalgia. For those of us on a diet of Bollywood Prime, it might end up feeling like a documentary of times gone by.
There are plenty of amusing vignettes – Tabu making jhaal-mudi with Rice Krispies (which of us hasn’t tried other adaptations like cornflakes chivda and ricotta cheese barfi) – Tabu reciting ‘Daffodils’ (after 25 years, I still remember most of the words). Even the train derailment brought back memories.
But all these little touches don’t quite make a cohesive strand. The movie ends up being a series of sentimental images. I would have loved to watch it as a long TV series, Buniyaad style. Ultimately I was left with a feeling of wanting more.
Still, the movie is definitely worth seeing because of its tremendous performances. Irrfan Khan plays against type as a gentle, romantic, wise husband and Tabu effortlessly slips into Ashima’s persona. Kal Penn is convincing as the ABCD high school student but falters in the emotional scenes, especially against the seasoned veterans. Irrfan and Tabu’s Bengali accents (the movie is partially in Bengali with subtitles) are acceptable and anyway they communicate so well without words.
The Namesake cannot be called a Bollywood movie by any stretch of imagination. It is a movie about Indians that captures a particular era and a particular place beautifully. And yes, to my mind, it is better than the book, which I never did finish.