There have been attempts to cinematically capture the process of immigration and assimilation of our sub-continentals in another culture. But none has been as much of a milestone as Mira Nair’s big screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake.
Anyone who has travelled to America from this part of the world will realise and empathise with the lot of the immigrant who goes through a familiar cycle of bewilderment, observation and acceptance but not assimilation. That is left to later generations.
The first generation immigrant typically sees “home” on the shores left behind, whereas to the children who are born into the new culture see “home” is where they are.
As Glenn Kenny from Premiere Magazine observes, “In a most welcome rebound — after her lively, colourful, and largely insufferable version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, director Mira Nair tackles another literary adaptation — this time of a contemporary best-seller by Jhumpa Lahiri — and makes her best film yet. The Namesake is a thoroughly engaging, terrifically moving family story that’s rich in beautifully observed and lovingly conveyed human detail. It begins with Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), on a train in India, explaining to a fellow passenger why he’s reading the stories of Nikolai Gogol, and ends with Ashoke’s son (Kal Penn) — the namesake of the title, who has been named Gogol, for reasons that are clarified as the story spans a generation — finally reading Gogol’s The Overcoat. ‘We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat,’ Ashoke is fond of quoting Dostoevsky, and one of the many nice things about Nair’s movie, which goes from the arranged marriage of Ashoke and Ashima (Tabu) to their lonely early days in America to the uneasy assimilation of their children and beyond, is that it will make you understand what Ashoke means even if you don’t know Gogol from Google. As for the details, they are abundant from the very beginning, as in an unforgettable moment when Ashima, about to meet her husband-to-be for the first time, sees his shoes on a mat outside the room and, bedazzled by the ‘Made in America’ engraved on their insoles, slyly and shyly steps into them, feeling them out. The lovely Tabu makes the moment palpable for the viewer. All of the performances in the movie are spectacular, but Penn’s transformation from petulant teen to smoothed-out, capable, but still self-absorbed adult could be one of the year’s finest pieces of acting. The story line becomes a little diffuse during the film’s last 30 minutes, but Nair’s deft handling of people and places (she shoots South Asia and the suburban northeast of the US with the same knowingness) creates a cumulative warmth, making one loath to leave the Ganguli family once the movie’s over.”
Adds Robert Sims, “Nair clearly has a greater appreciation than her peers of The Namesake’s exploration of cultural heritage versus cultural assimilation. That’s evident in the delicate manner in which she presents Gogol’s transformation from a sullen and uninterested teenager to a man willing to accept his family’s past as he plans for his future. She also handles Gogol’s complicated relationships with his family — especially with his father — with clarity, purpose and warmth.”
For me the story, in its feeling, is best summed up by actress Tabu’s wordless Indian classical song which portrays all the feelings of the Ganguli family from their venture and stay abroad, from uncertainty to a kind of acceptance, from joy to sorrow and ultimately to the understanding that each of us must find our own ways however close we are to one another.