Friday, 9 March 2012
The Namesake (2007) dir. Mira Nair
Starring: Kal Penn, Irfan Kahn, Tabu
By Alan Bacchus
The Namesake is a universal story about a second generation immigrant who feels the pressure and pull of his two cultures (his parents and his home). It’s a pressure many young people can relate to, particularly in North America, where much of the population has, within one or two generations, emigrated from a different culture. Mira Nair’s film hits all these buttons, sometimes too hard, but ultimately telling a relevant story rarely told in today’s cinema.
The film is structured in two defined halves. The first belongs to Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Kahn), a Bengali Indian who, after suffering a near fatal train accident, decides to move to New York City to pursue his dreams. Ashoke’s story spans his years as a student to his traditional arranged marriage to his wife, Ashima (Tabu). Once in America, Ashoke and Ashima struggle with fitting into the Western lifestyle, but once their two children are born they finally feel comfortable and secure in their new home.
We are then introduced to their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), who is your typical Americanized youth. Gogol rolls his eyes at the cultural differences of his parents and prefers a traditional melting pot life. Throughout Gogol’s youth he is plagued with his unusual name. Gogol announces that he wants to change his name so he won't be judged on the basis of something unpronounceable on his resume. He faces the continued conflict between the expectations of his Indian culture, the expectations of his parents and the expectations he places on himself to lead a fulfilling life.
The title refers to Gogol's name and what seems like the hidden story behind it. The name should have been used as a metaphor for Gogol's inner conflict, but Nair keeps referring to the name over and over again - especially in the first half of the film. Therefore, we expect a dramatic reveal about the source of the name. The trailer also alludes to a dramatic reveal, but when Ashoke does tell Gogol where and why he chose the name, it's a letdown. The opening scene tells us everything Ashoke tells Gogol. As a result, we are left saying, "Is that it?"
Things get interesting in the second half when Gogol grows up and has to experience life on his own. This feels like a different film. The first half, which is essentially a long extended first act, tries to hit every beat in Ashoke's life. As a result, his story feels like a series of disconnected scenes. These scenes jump around across time without letting us get attached to a single subplot in the present. The film settles down and is allowed to grow and develop traditionally with the introduction of Kal Penn.
The theme of cultural conflict has been told before (e.g., Bend It Like Beckham), but Nair successfully dramatizes it without the comic support. Gogol's journey is not as simple or predictable as one might expect. His emotional conflict is not solved with his acceptance of his heritage. It's not a simple solution of marrying a Bengali to appease his parents. Nair makes it more difficult for Gogol, which, for the audience, means a more interesting and satisfying film. Enjoy.