The “arranged marriage” of Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri is an inspired one. Their collaboration to film the best selling novel brings us a profoundly intimate movie that reaches and resonates wide.
With a few changes (why settle the Ganguli family in upper state New York, as opposed to Cambridge?), Nair has chosen to remain predominantly faithful to Lahiris history of an assimilated Indian-American family. While we may not get some of the details that fleshed out the book here, the impact is enhanced by Nairs signature artistry and, naturally, understanding of the whole situation. Few contemporary American directors could so relate to the idea that, just one generation ago, marriages were arranged or appreciate that those transactions could develop into something honest and loving. And that is where Nair makes this story her own. While the written page captures more of the generations struggle, Nair gives a real focus on the love story between Ashoke and Ashima, the immigrant bride and groom. Tabu, one of Indias veteran stars, is glorious in this demanding role, growing into a warm gravitas as the years pass around her.. Irrfan Khan takes the previously almost underwritten role of the husband/father and turns him into a sweet, shy, confused and scared man. His efforts to settle into a new marriage, a new job and a new country are bumpy and charming. Yet his bungled concern over the “Americanization” of his only son is frustrating to us, the viewer. Why can he not see his sons struggle to break away, to find his life in a new world, just as he, himself, had chosen? The truth is that, while Ashoke reads rather stiff and merciless in the novel, in the film, thanks to Nair and Khan, we cant help but like him and, therefore, feel his own conflict in a more compassionate way.
Still, the crux of this story is the namesake himself, a boy born in America, but whose roots, along with his name, tie him to his ancestry. As Gogol, Kal Penn is a revelation. Born and raised in New Jersey, of South Asian ancestry, Penn has already established himself as a camera ready presence in goofy products like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Van Wilder movies. So, its no big shock hes as natural as he is in the stoned out, teenage rebellious scenes. But, as the stuff starts to hit the fan and as Gogol begins to realize he is more his parents child than hed cared to admit, Penns performance digs in far deeper than weve seen him before. His mixed emotions are our own, his desperation in reaching for his legacy is palpable.
While The Namesake is very much of its specific ancestry (and will certainly tug at the heartstrings of any Indian watching it), its pull is universal. In this world wide culture, this is a film that reminds us all of who we are, where we come from and how, for better or worse, wed better just embrace it.