WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY
Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
Director Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel, The Namesake, is her finest movie to date. She pays tribute to the novel with an affectionate, meticulous telling of the saga of two generations of a Bengali family in America.
The Namesake lends itself to classroom discussion built around the identity confusions of American immigrants born in one country and spending their lives in another. Do they gracefully graft their pasts with the present or hopelessly drown in another culture?
Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) move from Calcutta to America in the 1970s after a traditional arranged marriage. Once here, it is very difficult for Ashima to get used to the perfunctory pleasantries that pass for social interaction in her new life.
When the couple has their first child, the act of naming it falls to the Asthma’s grandmother in Calcutta. Only her letter never arrives, and the hospital needs a name on the birth certificate, so Ashoke names him Gogol. This is the name of his favorite Russian author, but it has deeper significance, going baack to his youth when he survived a train wreck in India.
It is Gogol’s story that dominates the film, but also it is a story of his family. The first generation assimilates to their new lives in America, but never quite adjusts to it the way their children Gogol (Kal Penn) and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair) do. “I feel I gave birth to strangers,” Ashima declares at one point. Not only do they speak without an accent, but their attitudes on dating and drinking are shocking and best not discussed at home. Even after enforced trips to Calcutta and an excursion to see the Taj Mahal, they only yearn for their Western ways. Gogol hates his name. When he goes to university, he changes it to Nikhil, and it is this name everyone will know him by from then on.
But his name is not the really the problem. He finds himself living in two cultures but feeling estranged from both.
Gogol graduates with a degree in architecture. A romance with a beautiful blonde Max (Jacinda Barrett) is momentarily liberating, as he faces the prospect of settling down with a nice Indian girl. Penn, the actor playing Gogol, makes a startling departure in this film from his previous role in the comedy Harry and Kumar Go to White Castle, with a mature introspective performance. So it is in the film, when called up to command, Gogol/Nikhil becomes a man.#