THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair, 2006)
Based on Jhumpa Lahiri's graceful novel about family and cultural tradition, THE NAMESAKE peers into the lives of the Gangulis. Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) enter into an arranged marriage that brings the shy woman from her home in India to the New York City suburb where her husband is a college professor. With 24-hour gas service and drinkable water from the tap, this new land offers greater comforts, but it also leaves Ashima's family half a world away.
Although they keep close ties to the Bengali community in their adopted home, the couple adjust to American customs as necessary. Upon the birth of their first child, a boy, the Gangulis are forced to name their baby before being released from the hospital. (They are waiting for a relative's letter to bestow the boy with a name.) Ashoke chooses Gogol in honor of his favorite author, the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.
The name carries great importance to Ashoke, but predictably, it is a burden for Gogol (Kal Penn), who already stands out among his WASP classmates. Having a suicidal namesake doesn't help. As he prepares to enter Yale, Gogol tells his parents that he will now go by Nikhil. To further distance himself from his heritage, this pet name used by family members will be shortened and Anglicized to Nick.
While THE NAMESAKE deals with Indian culture, the film possesses a universality regarding the conflicts in wanting to break from tradition. The American-born Gogol and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair) wish to fit in with the daily world familiar to them, not what their parents left behind. Gogol doesn't reject his background but wrestles with it on a constant basis. His journey of self-discovery is relatable to all who have sought to define themselves outside the expectations that come from cultural heritage and family.
THE NAMESAKE and Lahiri's exceptional short story collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES radiate the ache of loneliness. It's a quality that director Mira Nair excels at conveying in the film, whether through minor words and actions or framing characters in a way that disconnects them. Ashima is not an insistent or dramatic mother, but we can hear the yearning behind her questions about her unanswered phone calls to Gogol. Intimate moments bleed with deep longing for connection. The paradox of THE NAMESAKE is that it takes breaking from tradition, and the great pain that comes with it, to find how we need to be accepted and, if we choose, reunite with our roots.
In telling the stories of two generations, THE NAMESAKE bridges the gap between immigrant parents and their American offspring and allows for fuller understanding of the cultural gulf separating the age groups. Knowing Ashoke and Ashima's backstories is critical in developing them into complete characters with interior lives. This invests more weight in their struggles with and concessions to Gogol.
Those character-building scenes are also welcome because Khan and Tabu deliver the most indelible performances in the film. Their quiet, soulful portrayals of a couple who sacrifice for the good of their future and their children's enhance the emotional stake of Gogol's search. Penn acquits himself in his first major serious film role, although he lacks the kind of range the part demands.
Told with compassion and delicacy, THE NAMESAKE provides a stirring view of cultural assimilation and personal discovery.