Yes, Mira Nair’s filmic version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel has more than its fair share of the kind of clichés that run riot in almost any story about cultural assimilation. In this regard, it’s not a whole lot different than any number of slightly soapy dramas dating back to the birth of film. That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in the case of The Namesake, it can be said to go with the territory, not in the least because the film tries to pack so much into its 122-minute length that clichés are essential shorthand. The amount of story—touching on several generations—in The Namesake is both its blessing and what keeps it from crossing the line from being a very good film to a truly great one.
The film’s trailer is deceptive, since it makes the film look like it focuses entirely on Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn proving that, yes, there’s more to him than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), and that isn’t the case. In fact, the first section of the film deals with his father, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan, The Warrior), and Ashoke’s fateful train trip that sets in motion much of what will happen. The journey is an ill-fated one that ends in a wreck leaving Ashoke as one of the few (possibly only) survivors. What he first remembers upon awakening is a fellow passenger’s advice to get out of India and see the world, which Ashoke does. He returns home some time later to enter into an arranged marriage with Ashima (Tabu), who he takes back to America with him. She adapts to American life, but like her husband, keeps firmly planted in the cultural traditions of her homeland—something that neither of their very Americanized children, Gogol and Sonia (Sahira Nair, Monsoon Wedding), can really relate to. This is where the story more or less becomes the one presented in the trailer.
A large portion of the film is indeed informed by the culture-clash elements relating to Gogol’s desire to change his name (based largely on his lack of real understanding that the name means far more than just a nod to his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol) and his complete assimilation into modern American life. Similarly, his reawakened interest in his ancestral culture, that’s shown (very out of context) in the trailer, is a key element. But neither of these threads are the entire story, which is much broader in scope than we’re led to expect from the film’s preview. The Namesake is as much about the entire family—especially Ashima—as it is about Gogol. In some ways, it’s even more about Ashima’s coming to terms with her own multicultural status.
More, the film is about this kind of inner-culture clash in a broader sense. When Gogol—awakened to his background—ends up marrying another Indian, Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson, The Merchant of Venice), the film crosses over into her cultural confusion as well, with somewhat surprising, but essential, results. By the film’s end, much ground has been covered and much has been learned by all the characters, but it is Ashima who seems to have come to terms with her life, while Gogol has merely been awakened to the chance of truly doing so.
Nair has—as always—managed to fashion a gorgeous film and one that likes its characters. And she’s able to convey that liking to the viewer, which is a unique gift. In some respects, The Namesake may be her most mature work to date. So much is left to the viewer to pick up on (the business about the meaning of names doesn’t begin and end with Gogol) that Nair shows herself to have become that rarest of filmmakers: One who trusts the intelligence of the audience. She may have bitten off more than she—or anyone—could chew with this sprawling narrative, but she’s done as right by it as possible. Her use of Penn in the lead is inspired, presenting him in something like his Harold and Kumar mode at the onset and then uncovering the layers of his character as the film goes on. And Penn is up to the task. The results are a film that seems a little meandering while you’re watching it, but one that improves the more you think about it. Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke