Given the generational and cultural tensions that constitute the bulk of Mira Nair’s latest work “The Namesake” (2006), the previews have suggested, not surprisingly, that the film centers on American-born Bengali Indian Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) uncovering the story behind his name, and thus reclaiming his ethnic heritage. Nair’s film is based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name. Since I have not read the book, my review evaluates the film as a text separate from its source material.
“The Namesake” starts by establishing how Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) and his wife Ashima (Tabu) met, moved to the United States, and then started a family. Structurally, it constructs identification with the parents, allowing the viewer to see them in ways that their son Gogol and daughter Sonia (Sahira Nair) do not. Gogol’s character occupies a substantial role narratively and thematically. His initial immaturity and obliviousness highlights the parent-child conflict and enables the viewer to know even more about him than earlier parts of the film implied. His journey to reconnect with his Indian-ness (which happens after college graduation and upon a tragic event) and to discover the “true” meaning behind his name—beyond the fact that his father’s favorite writer was Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol—is also means for him to understand his parents and their struggles.
The film may have been marketed as following the son’s quest, but it is equally if not ultimately more profoundly invested in Ashima’s experiences first as a young wife in a new country and then as a mother. Approximately twenty-five years pass in the film’s 122 minutes of running time. Significantly, it is twenty-five years of Ashima’s life—she verbalizes as much. She is also literally the last image on the screen.
Nair applies an ethnographic sensibility to “The Namesake” just as she did in “Mississippi Masala” (1991) and “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), both of which were family-centered narratives that raised questions about cultural and geo-political identity and upholding traditions. “The Namesake” reprises these themes by exploring the steps Ashoke and his wife Ashima take to attain their piece of the American Dream in New York in the late 1970s. Moreover, the film includes snippets of Bengali customs that unfold naturally enough not to come across as a National Geographic’s piece (little Sonia presented with a plate of objects or Gogol telling his non-Asian girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) to suppress all displays of affection when visiting his parents).
While the film develops chronologically, an episodic-like structure and abstractly goal-oriented plot results in a kind of fragmentation. Utilizing elliptical story-telling as a practical and stylistic device maintains narrative cohesion as Nair strings together various moments (weddings, family trips, life-altering conversations) in the lives of the main characters.
In the first scene of the film, Ashoke tells a fellow train passenger that books allow their readers to “travel without going an inch.” “The Namesake” itself accomplishes this “still motion”—except, the viewer does go places. The film does not sit still; it pushes forward through time and space, stopping only long enough for the significance of one scene to inform the next. When “The Namesake” ends, one feels as though one has lived with the characters instead of just watching them. The omniscient, privileged position that the viewer has, as an observer of the melodramatic moments in the Ganguli family, reinforces the experience of knowing the family rather than merely catching a glimpse.