Film >The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel, The Namesake, delivers its story in a fashion well-suited to literature; with a tight focus on one family over the course of many years, the book bobs and weaves from one family member’s crisis to another’s disillusionment to another’s rebellion seamlessly, warranting the occasional rereading of a page or two just to soak in the emotional tenor of the clan’s tribulations. Nonetheless, good novels, as we all know, don’t always become good films. Thankfully, The Namesake — directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala — deftly captures that tenor, making for a rewarding adaptation of a well-regarded book. Following the Ganguli family from their Calcutta home to the stark, daunting environs of urban America, the FOB (“fresh off the boat”) parents eventually give birth to a pair of ABCD (American-born confused desi) kids, and the conflicting impulses of familial loyalty, cultural tradition and simply fitting in are the essence of The Namesake’s theme. The befuddled sighs of mother Ashima (renowned Indian actress Tabu) will be familiar to any second-generation immigrant, as her early, tentative attempts to acclimate eventually give way to a reliance on a small circle of Bengali friends and a nonstop desire to return “home.” Her husband (Ashoke, played by Irfan Khan) is loving and sensitive, but never quite understands why Ashima can’t — after so many years — just settle in. It’s son Gogol (named after the Russian author) who is the fulcrum of the story, though. Played by Kal Penn (in a relatively measured way, surprisingly enough), Gogol indulges in the limited rebellions so many desi kids turn to — he’s got a (ridiculously self-important) white girlfriend, he loves hard rock, he’s unwilling to be inextricably attached to his mother — while maintaining a deep (if begrudging) respect for the complex traditions that bind Indian family life. Gogol’s vacillation between insouciant brat and dedicated son unfolds as the heart of the story, and Taraporevala’s script elegantly paces the unraveling in a way that’s true to the book. Packing 30 years of Bengali family dynamics into two hours means that some details get glossed over and the occasional logical fallacy pops up, but the rich presentation that Nair gives the exceptional story more than makes up for minor mistakes.