Returning to Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best selling novel ‘The Namesake’ for a second time made me finally overlook the weakness of casting Kal Penn as ‘Gogol Ganguly’ and embrace the film for its many cinematic evocations. Characterised as a diaspora film maker by some, Mira Nair started her career with the award winning ‘Salaam Bombay’, eventually shifting into mainstream film making with Hollywood projects like ‘Vanity Fair’. However, it is her study of the diaspora experience that comes through most strongly and vividly in films such as ‘Monsoon Wedding’. ‘The Namesake’ is by far her greatest achievement to date and is also one of her most personal and ambitious films. The film is very far reaching in the kinds of pertinent questions it poses about immigrants who come from India to settle abroad, in this case America, and the difficulties their children encounter in trying to forge some kind of meaningful cultural identity.
In the opening sequence, we are introduced to the fearless yet benign character of Ashok Ganguly (Irfan Khan), an ordinary Bengali with few world weary aspirations, but all of that changes when the train crashes; his near death experience compels him to travel, which he does, immigrating to America. Upon his return to India, Ashok marries Ashima (Tabu), a woman of simple tastes with a love of classical Indian music. Nair had previously worked with Irfan Khan on ‘Salaam Bombay’ but the wikipedia entry reports that his scenes were cut from the final version of the film which is not entirely accurate considering I recently viewed the film and it was obvious that Irfan Khan makes a fleeting appearance. Tabu is one of India’s finest actresses and continues to maintain a low key public profile. Perhaps this explains why she is one of the most widely respected film actresses of her generation and has successfully and consistently alternated between mainstream film projects and smaller, independent ones. Tabu’s graceful elegance and exquisite acting skills is a throwback to the classic much immortalised film stars of the Indian studio era; Waheeda Rehman and Nutan are regularly cited when mentioning Tabu.
Interestingly, both Tabu and Irfan Khan have excellent comic timing, a technique that has been acquired and refined from the many admittedly hit and miss screwball comedies they have starred in over the years. Vishal Bhardwaj, cast them opposite one another in ‘Maqbool’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and many critics commented on the on screen chemistry they generated as being key to the film’s success. Such is the case with ‘The Namesake’, and Mira Nair must be complemented on bravely casting Tabu and Irfan Khan in such pivotal roles as the intimacy expressed on screen is never forced or unconvincing. It is safe to say that we feel at ease in their company and the genuine warmth that underlines their tender relationship is somewhat reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s understated treatment of Bengali cultural identity. The emotional power of this film rests largely on the shoulders of Tabu and Irfan Khan, and even though Kal Penn is very much at the centre of the narrative, it becomes very much a film about the painful loneliness and displacement that Ashok and Ashima have to suffer so that their children may have a chance at grasping the opportunities denied to them in Bengal.
But what must one surrender if you are to immigrate to a foreign and alien land? Should you simply push to one side your origins and the cultural roots of your parent’s identity and embrace the westernised idea of cultural assimilation? This is exactly the unanswerable questions Nair asks with the character of Gogol Ganguly, the son of first generation immigrants who suffers an identity crisis as he enters adulthood. Gogol’s first attempt at trying to reject his Bengali cultural roots is by changing his name from Gogol to Nikhil so to confirm his assimilation. However much Gogol tries to withdraw himself from the ethnicity of his community, he is constantly brought back to confront the all important question regarding his own obscured identity. Unlike Gogol’s desire for cultural integration, Ashok’s fear of anonymity is painfully realised when he dies alone in a hospital, far away from the comforts of his wife and children. It seems that Ashok is the one who sacrifices the most for his children and the tragic price he is forced to pay is painfully visualised in the wounding shot of the empty, still apartment he occupies when he leaves on a three month teaching post.
It is the details that Nair renders with great precision especially when Ashima wakes up to find herself in a strange, new world; her idea of breakfast becomes a deeply ironic hybrid of chili powder and rice crispies. The culture shock experienced by Ashima is depicted with both wonder and trepidation yet more than Ashok she remains deeply connected with her homeland; this link is never severed even though it is threatened on many occasions by the trauma of death and loss. Nair treats the death of Ashok with extraordinary humility and much of the sincerity of this film is borne out of the emotional loss one feels when Ashima accidentally gets word of her husband’s death. The terrible guilt that bears down upon Gogol after he realises the many sacrifices and compromises given by his father reconfigures his identity once more. The symbolic significance of Gogol’s shaven head underlines his rebirth and rejection of the values of his girlfriend, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), who fails to come to terms with the notion of a continuous identity crisis. This moment of ‘growing up’ and acquiring responsibility and subsequently earning a passage into adulthood are familiar conventions of the coming of age narrative that tends to be strongly associated with the American road movie and teen high school films.
The closing moments of the film kind of brings us full circle in terms of narrative; now it is Gogol who we see on a train, making a journey into the unknown and just like his father, he too will continue searching for an identity that will continually be in flux; forever changing, never fixed or permanent. Interestingly, Nair inter-cuts between a train in America to one in India to illustrate a singular truth that really does cut across any kind of generational divide; that all of those who extend from immigrant origins will likely to be torn between the land of their birth and the one that calls out to them across the oceans. Costing $9.5 million to make, ‘The Namesake’ grossed $20 million worldwide, and even though the final film is somewhat compromised by Kal Penn’s weak performance, Nair’s decision to cast him is perhaps vindicated in the commercial success enjoyed by a diaspora film about Bengali immigrants.