Modernity And Tradition
At a Cultural Crossroads
Color is the stuff of life in the movies of Mira Nair, the Indian-born director whose newest film, ''The Namesake,'' follows two generations of a Bengali family from late-1970s Calcutta to New York City. Her lush palette lends her films a throbbing physicality that invites you to step into the screen and embrace the sensuous here and now.
''The Namesake,'' adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's popular novel, conveys a palpable sense of people as living, breathing creatures who are far more complex than their words might indicate. The story of upwardly mobile immigrants torn between tradition and modernity as they are absorbed into the American melting pot has been told in countless movies.
This variation is gentle and compassionate. The longing for roots of these displaced middle-class Indians lends a soulful undertow to a film conspicuously lacking in melodrama.
Ms. Nair has a sympathetic collaborator in Sooni Taraporevala, the Indian screenwriter who also wrote her first two features, ''Salaam Bombay!'' (1988) and ''Mississippi Masala'' (1991). Its steady, unhurried pace, its fascination with the rituals of daily life and its deep respect for characters who are continually evolving lift ''The Namesake'' above high-end soap opera. It may lack epic grandeur, but by the end you feel you know these people well enough to keep in step with their internal rhythms.
The film has a crackling star performance by Kal Penn (from the clever trash comedy ''Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle''), who brings an offhanded charisma to the role of Gogol, the first-born child of Ashima (Tabu), a classically trained singer, and Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), an aspiring engineer, who move to America in 1977 after their arranged marriage in Calcutta.
Alone together in a foreign land in the middle of winter, the shy, polite newlyweds are virtual strangers, and the movie captures their delicate process of mutual accommodation. Ashima's initiation into American culture has gentle, humorous moments. She is astonished to discover gas stoves that work 24 hours a day and learns the hard way that wool sweaters should not be dumped into a washing machine.
A prologue looks back to a turning point in Ashoke's life. During a train trip in 1974 to visit his grandfather, a friendly stranger advises him to leave India and see the world. Ashoke is reading ''The Overcoat,'' the famous story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who spent much of his life outside his homeland. When the train crashes later in the trip, Ashoke miraculously survives, and the Gogol story becomes a totem in his life, a symbolic tie to his homeland and an omen of good luck.
Years later when his son is born, Ashoke is told that the baby cannot leave the hospital without a name. In India several years might pass before a child is given a formal name, chosen by the maternal grandmother. Ashoke impulsively calls his son Gogol. As the boy grows up, his ambivalence about his temporary name, which he embraces, then rejects (his formal name is Nikhil), becomes a metaphor for his divided cultural identity.
In high school Gogol rebels from his family and behaves like a typical pot-smoking, rock-'n'-roll-loving American teenager. On a visit to Calcutta he sneers at Indian ways. After studying architecture at Yale, he falls in love with Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a stereotypical blonde WASP princess from Long Island. Cultural tensions flare when he brings her home to meet his family, and the couple are expected to withhold any expressions of physical affection, according to Indian tradition.
Gogol eventually falls in love with Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a beautiful Bengali woman who lived a freewheeling life in Paris before coming to the United States. His female counterpart, she is as culturally confused as he is, and the relationship runs into trouble.
Despite all the tensions in the Ganguli household, ''The Namesake'' expresses a reassuring faith in family solidarity. Avoiding the cliché of pitting disobedient immigrant children in pitched battles against tradition-bound parents from the old country, the film assumes that blood ties are the strongest bonds holding together the social order.
In the second half of the movie the Ganguli parents step into the background as the focus shifts to Gogol. But instead of disappearing, Ashoke and Ashima loom as dignified, stabilizing pillars of tolerance and devotion whom their son and his younger sister, Sonia (Sahira Nair), cherish, even as they reject the old ways.
''The Namesake'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has mild sexual situations.
The New York Times | March 8, 2007
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