Directed by Mira Nair
Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
Screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala
Starring: Irfan Khan, Kal Penn, and Tabu
Mira Nair's films, like Indian festivals, tend to be indulgent and excessive. Writer Jhumpa Lahiri's stories about Indian-Americans are sparse and understated by contrast. For her adaptation of Lahiri's best-selling novel The Namesake, Nair finds a compromise between the two styles, but her otherwise effective directing is undercut by an overambitious yet bland screenplay.
The film attempts to address multi-generational themes, but is littered with lazy approximations of the immigrant experience and tries to cover too many characters in too much detail for its two hour running time. The novel was far more powerful, concentrating on the experiences of Gogol, a second-generation Indian-American. So while those with little exposure to Indian culture will find the film at least somewhat informative, anyone familiar with the culture or the book will be put off by the inadequate representation of the central character and the dilution of the themes essential to the novel.
The movie initially focuses on Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irfan Khan), two arranged newlyweds from Calcutta who settle "halfway around the world," in New York City, where Ashoke is a graduate student. The film begins at Ashima's house to establish her ties to India and the stark differences between that country and the US. Ashima's house in India is full of life, people, and color, though it lacks clean water and washing machines. When Ashima and Ashoke arrive at his apartment in New York City, Ashima meets snow, captivity, and loneliness. Unfortunately, The Namesake substitutes clichés for insight, repeatedly drawing attention to obvious details, such as samosas and the distance between India and the US.
Thereafter, the film follows Ashima and Ashoke's son, Gogol (Kal Penn), who is searching for his personal identity as an Indian-American.
While Gogol is extremely close to his family and shows that love at home, he grows up in America, attending public schools and rock concerts. When he leaves home, he rebels against his parents' traditions and grows enamored with "old money" American culture. It takes a tragedy to remind him of his love for his family. In the end, he embraces an identity that reconciles his parents' influence with his American surroundings.
In the novel, Gogol is defined by his romantic relationships and his memories, but both are handled poorly in the film. For example, in the novel, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and her WASP-y parents seduce Gogol with the sense of permanence, comfort, and style evident in their lives, starting with the first time he sees her house, a Greek Revival. The film, however, skips Gogol's first meeting with Maxine's family entirely. Too many flashbacks make either obvious or vague points. Without the right details, I missed the strong familiarity that I felt with Gogol when I read the novel.
Both Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala identify with Ashima as a main character in the movie, even though she was a secondary character in the novel. In an attempt to give equal weight to both stories, the film does justice to neither, but can only flit through the main events in these characters' lives. Bouncing from crisis to crisis, Ashima and Gogol seem oddly emotional and overly tragic, and despite all the action, the movie plods.
One complaint I had about the novel was Lahiri's insistence on a hushed tone that stripped several of the characters of personality, making them seem like contrivances. A film had the opportunity to breathe life into these characters. The film settles for simplifications of many aspects of the immigrant experience and ultimately fails to challenge or engage the audience.