Packed with female book-club members, a screening of Mira Nair’s The Namesake left no doubt about the film’s target audience. If anyone’s going to flock to this warm and likable tale, it’s going to be women, yet it seems a pity to confine the movie behind the bars of a chick flick. Dividing its time between the fortunes of a Bengali immigrant in New York and those of her anxiously Americanized son, The Namesake combines the intimate pleasures of a family saga with a finely sustained inquiry into the difficult balance between separation and integration.
This is home turf for Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, two smart and saucy South Asian expatriates who previously collaborated on the exuberant charmer Mississippi Masala. That unexpected hit had a sneaky gift for laying the burden of weirdness on the host culture, and it helped put Nair on the map as one of a growing band of exponents of the Asian immigrant experience. Peppered with ancient Indian music and Asian pop, The Namesake carries faint echoes of the carnal physicality that makes Nair’s more lightweight movies so much fun to look at — Monsoon Wedding was a dandy piece of froth, and Vanity Fair survives only on its looks. Based on a first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies won her a Pulitzer Prize, The Namesake is a quieter, more mature work.
Shot with muted elegance by Frederick Elmes, the movie moves between the heat and dust of Calcutta and the ice and slush of Queens, New York, where Ashima (played by the Indian star Tabu, a ravishing presence at once sexy and maternal) lands with her new husband, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), a cerebral engineer she knows only from their arranged marriage. Still, their love blossoms as lonely, isolated Ashima, trapped in the shock of the new, grudgingly makes concessions to this strange American world of washing machines and overflowing supermarkets. Soon, the couple moves to the suburbs and becomes part of an Indian community that maintains its links to the old country while prospering in the new.
Not so her restless son, Gogol (Kal Penn, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), who is hellbent on becoming a hip American. Like many children of immigrants, he channels all his conflicts and the resentment he feels toward his loving, staid parents, into a profound loathing for his foreign name. Unaware of the pivotal significance of that name in his gentle father’s life story, Gogol rushes into the arms of a juicy bohemian (Jacinda Barrett). Things don’t go well, but even after a family crisis brings Gogol’s roots back into focus, his troubles stubbornly continue to pile up.
Though The Namesake never fully resolves the episodic formlessness of Lahiri’s novel, there’s meaning in the loose ends, which both define the predicament of the second-generation immigrant and confer on him a strategic advantage in navigating the fluid boundaries of modern urban life. It’s a dance between tradition and modernity, one that has its own grace and its own benediction.