by Bill Gallagher
In “The Namesake,” the Bengali mom who has left home and family behind for an American
future full of peril and strange ways has no choice but to adapt. So she does, having and then
raising two kids who are all New York and not-at-all New Delhi.
We know she’s resigned to her version of the immigrant experience when she responds to her
kids’ latest mini-rebellion with the words, “No big deal.” If she were speaking today she’d say,
“whatever.” The point is that to fight too hard to maintain the traditions of the old country is to
wage a war you’re going to lose. Because the mom, Ashima Ganguli, is such a great woman, you
may find yourself rooting for those traditions. Especially when we realize that discarding the past
can lead to a pretty barren future where even maintaining an intact family is “no big deal.”
“The Namesake” is not just one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time that deals with the
immigrant experience in America, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, period.
Director Mira Nair gives us a masterpiece of a movie in which Ashima, her husband Ashoke, and
their children Gogol and Sonia become every immigrant family who ever discovered that
financial success comes with a jarring sense of cultural dislocation. If your parents were born
anywhere but in America I can almost guarantee that you will see some of them in Ashima and
Their son Gogol is the namesake referred to in the title. How he got his name makes for the
foundation of the movie and the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, which is a great read,
by the way. As a young engineer in India, Ashoke was a big fan of Russian literature. On a train
ride he’s reading “The Overcoat,” by Nikolai Gogol, when the train goes off the tracks and all
sorts of people are killed. Ashoke barely survives. The works of Gogol take on a special meaning
for him. So, when the name chosen for their American-born baby boy by his maternal
grandmother, according to Indian custom, never arrives from Calcutta, he becomes Gogol.
Gogol’s (Kal Penn) issues with his name trail him through adolescence into adulthood, when he
has it legally changed to Nikhil. His mother’s response to this news? “No big deal.” Penn is
perfect for this role. He is of Gujarati Indian descent but was born in Tony Soprano’s hometown,
Montclair, N.J. You may have caught him in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” I didn't,
but I will put that one in my Netflix cue as soon as I’m done writing this review.
Or, you may have seen Penn as the terrrorist Ahmed Amar on “24” this season. As Gogol, he’s a
high achiever academically who seems to have little time for his parents and their lives before
they came to America. But gradually he comes to appreciate what they’ve been through and
suffers through a cultural identity crisis of his own. As a result, the rich, blonde, beautiful
girlfriend who comes from solid but slightly bohemian Manhattan parents has got to go. Instead,
he hooks up with another first-generation American-Bengali who is thoroughly modern but still
tenuously attached to Indian customs, culture and cooking. That these two don’t live happily ever after and have nowhere near as strong a relationship as exists between Ashima and Ashoke is one
of the reasons “The Namesake” is such a good movie.
As good a job as Penn does in the role of Gogol, the real stars of “The Namesake” are Tabu and
Irfan Khan, the two Indian actors who play Ashima and Ashoke. Theirs is an arranged marriage.
Courtship consists of a sit-down involving the two of them and their parents. Communication
between the two entails quick glances and fleeting half-smiles. And then they’re a young married
couple living in America. He’s an engineering professor in New York, and she’s a stranger in a
strange land suffering through a very rough pregnancy and only slowly adjusting to her new life.
You ache for her.
You just know the very idea of an arranged marriage like theirs would be met with howls of
derision by people like the parents of Gogol’s first girlfriend. Yet, there’s a strength in their
marriage and a faith in each other that makes “The Namesake” as much of a love story as it is a
coming-of-age and an immigrant-experience saga. In this era of “soul mates,” how could two
people joined in matrimony because their parents think they’re right for each other possibly
make it work? That they are right for each other and that it does work are a big part of what
makes “The Namesake” so emotionally compelling.
And while the demise of an intact Indian family in America sounds pretty depressing, it isn’t.
That’s because even when the family members go their separate ways to be regarded as separate
individuals, we know they are the individuals they are because family mattered so much to
Ashima and Ashoke.
Director Nair is of Indian descent, and most of her movies have been set there but no way should
she be jammed into a narrow “Bollywood” niche. I thought “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) was
delightful. It too dealt with an arranged marriage but like “The Namesake” transcended cliches
with careful character development, stunning visuals and a great narrative. The Gallagher theory
on how to make millions at the box office holds that all you have to do is put the word
“wedding” in the movie’s title and you’re guaranteed a healthy rate of return. Look at “Four
Weddings and a Funeral,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “The Wedding Planner,” “The
Wedding Singer,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and most recently “Wedding Crashers.” All
Where “Monsoon Wedding” breaks the mold of these crowd pleasers is with complex emotions.
Nair is not afraid to defy formulas by giving us characters with more depth than some directors
think we can handle. Nor is she a slave to the mandatory “happy ending” edict in Hollywood.
But unlike so many small, independent features that are made with more than box office in
mind, her movies point to big themes, introduce nuanced characters, and are beautiful to look at.
“No big deal,” says Ashima more than once in “The Namesake.” Accommodating American
ways may be what it takes to keep her kids close, but you just know this is a woman who knows
herself well and knows that America may mean a better life than the one in Calcutta. But it will
never replace the India in her soul.
Bill Gallagher is the news director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes the
monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - April 2007