The Namesake

Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Mira Nair/India-United States 2007

Imagine going through life with the name Gogol Ganguli. All the soft “g” sounds make it a lovely name to say. But honestly – Gogol? What were his parents thinking? That’s the question at the heart of Mira Nair’s new film, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed novel of the same name. Of course there’s a story behind the crazy, “g”-filled name. When Ashoke (Irfan Khan, whose quiet sincerity holds the whole film together) was a young man, he survived a train crash due to the book he was reading: Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat. This event affects his whole life and, to an extent, the lives of his family members. Refreshingly, the film never fully spells this out. His arranged marriage to Ashima (Tabu, a Bollywood star in her first English-language role) quickly follows the accident, and together they move to America for his career. Two children are soon born in their new home, but Gogol (Kal Penn, note-perfect in his awkward self-centeredness) doesn’t learn the reason behind his unusual name until his late teens.

The relationships within the Ganguli family feel real and unforced. They’re friendly and sincere with each other despite the cultural gap and inevitable resulting strains. Unfortunately, in following Gogol’s attempts to fit in with his unhyphenated-American friends – notably a posh WASP girlfriend played by Jacinda Barrett – we lose sight of the rest of his family. Ashima’s quiet, isolated life as a housewife and later a library assistant is very far from the life she dreamed of growing up in Calcutta. It never occurred to her or Ashoke that their children might find India and their Indian heritage something to be scared and/or embarrassed of. They didn’t think moving to another place might make them strangers to their family and maybe even to themselves.

Nair has stated that she filmed the two cities at the heart of the story in exactly the same way, just as people who live between places are perfectly capable of treating them both as home. This idea is emphasized by repeated shots of the George Washington Bridge in New York and the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, which offers a pleasing change from the tendency of Western films to exoticize any non-Western setting. But from someone who loved the novel, this movie doesn’t find any fresh notes. Even the Christmas cards Ashima makes in one critical scene precisely match the description from the book. As Robert Rodriguez said of Sin City, this is a translation, not an adaptation.

That a film ticks all the same boxes as its source material, in virtually the same order, is an unusual criticism to make. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what’s the point? Nair failed to address any of the book’s problems: Mainly, the sidelining of little sister Sonia (an adorable Sahira Nair) and the empty, forced romantic relationship between Gogol and Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson). Another nice addition might have been to learn more about how the Gangulis saw themselves, rather than only how others see them. It is possible to forge a distinctive, idiosyncratic identity between cultures, but this film doesn’t show us how. Since Nair made such a stir with her fresh approach to William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the fact that she simply translated The Namesake from page to screen proves to be a bit of a letdown.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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