The Namesake (2006) begins and ends with a young man reading a book by Gogol while riding on a train. In the intervening two hours the story charts a period of about twenty-eight years covering how the initially-seen young man, Ashoke Ganguli, survives a disastrous train wreck, marries a fellow Bengali Indian woman, and comes to America to study, work, and raise a family. He names his son after Gogol, and much of the film covers the growing up and coming of age of this boy in a world that is so very different from that of his parents.
The general topic of the collision of cultural values and the contrasting ways that people make accommodations to new circumstances and a new culture would be intrinsically interesting in any age, but it is particularly fascinating in today’s globalizing world. The story is based on the popular 2003 novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, a London-born Bengali woman who has resided in the United States since moving there as a child in 1970.
The plot of the film first covers the experiences of Ashoke, how he accepts a family-arranged marriage to his bride, Ashima, and then settles in the New York area as a graduate student and later university academic. Ashoke and Ashima are from educated, upper-class Bengali backgrounds, and they more or less gracefully deal with the dual problems of first getting to know each other and then getting to know the new land that is now their home. Their son, Gogol, however, follows an entirely different path, as he struggles with his own unique identity problems. On the one hand he emerges as a rather typical unruly American teenager, flouting authority and drowning his parent’s house with heavy-metal rock music. But on the other hand, his parents have rather loosely instilled in him an appreciation of their reserved and traditional way of doing things. All in all, though, Gogol is very much an American, and the difference between his parents ways and his own is most evident in the direct way he relates to girls of his own age. First he has a serious love affair with a wealthy young blonde girl, Maxine, and he appears to be headed for marriage with her, until a family crisis rocks his bearings and sidelines the affair. Later he falls in love with and marries a sophisticated Bengali girl, Moushumi, who has an even more modern attitude and lifestyle than he has.
The principal theme of the movie is the struggle for self-identity – and the idea of how one’s name can shape one’s social persona is a central motif of the film. Gogol struggles with his name, which seems ludicrous to his high school classmates, and he denounces his parents for having haphazardly condemned him to a lifetime of derision by giving him that name. But the name is actually something of a literary conceit, since the most famous story of Gogol Ganguli’s namesake, Nikolai Gogol, is “The Overcoat”, and the young Bengali’s troubles are echoed in that original tale, which is contained in the book that is read by Ahoke at the film’s beginning (and also by Gogol Ganguli at the end). In that nineteenth century Russian story the protagonist, Akakiy Akakievich, also has an alliterative and ridiculous-sounding name, and it seems to shadow that character’s own identity crisis and miserable social standing that is the dominant theme of the story.
With such an insightful underpinning and rich cultural mix, along with the pedigrees of the production staff, one would expect this to be masterful film. Unfortunately it is not the case. Mira Nair’s work here continues her wallowing in over-the-top comedy-drama. Her first major film, Salaam Bombay (1988), was a moving and penetrating drama about homeless children living on the streets of Mumbai, and she established herself as a rising star on the world stage of cinema. With her followup film, Mississippi Masala (1991), she added comic touches, but there was still a certain subtlety of expression. But since then, she has succumbed to increasingly sprawling and self-indulgent, comic tapestries that are heavy-handed and quasi-operatic. While The Namesake is superior to the randomly focused Monsoon Wedding (2001), it is a disappointment and continues the drift away from the virtues of Salaam Bombay.
There are a few elements, in particular, that are illustrative of the film’s shortcomings.
- The three relatively explicit sexual scenes in the film (one between Ashoke and Ashima, one with Gogol and Maxine, and one with Gogol and Moushumi) are unconvincing and relatively tasteless. These scenes may have been intended to reflect the feelings of romantic love, but they come across as artificially staged and garish.
- Ashima is one of the major perspectival characters in the movie, but the performance of Bollywood actress Tabu does not sustain the role. In her late thirties, Tabu is unconvincing as the roughly nineteen-year-old bride in the early parts of the film, and, overall, she doesn’t offer a compelling focal point for the narrative. On the other hand the performances of the two principal male leads, Irrfan Khan, as Ashoke, and Kal Penn, as Gogol, are more sturdy and compelling. Penn, who currently serves in the US government administration of President Barack Obama, uncomfortably reminds me of Nicolas Cage and is almost too much to take. But he has the American teenage attitudinal gestures down pat, and his uneasy encounters with a multitude of social cultural norms are among the more interesting segments in the film.
- Some of the scenes of India and the US are picturesque, but many of them appear more like isolated picture postcards than situated elements of a continuous narrative. They do not move the story along towards any foreseeable goals or resolutions.