In her vivid film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,” director Mira Nair returns to her country of origin for the first time since 2001’s “Monsoon Wedding.” As in her earlier works, Nair depicts the U.S. and India without glamorizing or giving in to exoticism, while still finding the beauty inherent in both cultures. Nair beautifully realizes Lahiri’s examination of the search for a modern Indian or Indian-American identity.
“The Namesake” is a portrait of the Ganguli family, beginning with the parents, Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), as they begin their lives together after an arranged marriage. Both are young and idealistic — Ashoke reads in lieu of traveling, and Ashima studies classical music and English. Together they exchange Calcutta’s famous bridge for the Fulton Street Fish Market, and a multifamily home for a small apartment in New York City. Their relationship builds from the shy regard of newlywed strangers to the dignified affection of longtime companions.
The Gangulis have their first child, a son they nickname Gogol (after Ashoke’s favorite author) but give the “good name” of Nikhil. One of Lahiri’s major themes, the complex nature of choosing and relating a name, materializes here when 4-year-old Gogol demands to keep his pet name at school. As time passes, Ashoke and Ashima welcome another child, Sonia. The contrast between Indian and American rites of passage such as birth, childhood, marriage, death and grieving are illustrated as the two siblings grow.
Sonia (Sahira Nair) and Gogol (Kal Penn) grow up as typical American children, seeming almost alien to their parents. They are irreverent, slangy and sullenly disassociated. Penn’s Gogol doesn’t seem that far removed from his Kumar — a teen Gogol is a laidback pot smoker who blasts Pearl Jam, resents his name and resents his father’s efforts to reach out to him.
Gogol’s rebellion continues in his choice of girlfriend, a bouncy blonde socialite named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) who says, does and wears every possible inappropriate thing to make audience members appreciate the quiet dignity of the Gangulis. It is only after confronting (and embracing) “the other,” represented by Maxine, that Gogol is able to find himself.
The story isn’t just about Gogol and his quest for identity. The film moves easily back and forth between the parents and the son. Ashoke’s past comes to light amid flashbacks of a traumatizing train wreck during his early 20s, and Ashima’s past returns through flashes of memory as she “follows her bliss” and discovers independence.
The film captures the stunning colors and landscapes of India, the squalor of the streets of Calcutta and New York, and the emotional extremes of wedding rituals and funeral rites. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes has an eye for capturing what is beautiful and poignant in both worlds.
The original music from Nitin Sawhney combines American guitar with Indian sitar and flute to underscore the fusion and conflict. Screenplay writer Sooni Taraporevala, who has worked with Nair on several earlier films, draws out the essence of Lahiri’s novel, mingling Bengali with Hindi and English so effortlessly that the subtitles almost go unnoticed.
Nair has a gift for bringing the most compelling aspects of a novel to life, which she does as solidly here as she did in 2004’s “Vanity Fair,” building upon the novel to discover what is universal, what is foreign and what is so deeply ingrained that it can’t be erased even by growing up on a far-removed continent.
The film is sophisticated, with literary motifs, recurring imagery, cultural observations and a narrative strong enough to trace a family’s evolution during a 20-year period without extending even a moment too far.
“The Namesake” was written by Sooni Taraporevala and directed by Mira Nair.
“The Namesake” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.