Among things my roommate will tell you: “The Namesake” is a moving adaptation about family, love and identity that is culturally relevant to him as a Bengali-American. Among things he will not tell you: We cried through 122 minutes of it.
“The Namesake,” based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (keep an eye out for her cameo as “Jhumpa Auntie”), chronicles the transformations of the Ganguli family over two generations. “Harold and Kumar” lead Kal Penn plays Gogol Ganguli, an American-born Bengali who — having distanced himself from his heritage, his family, and (as the title suggests) the legacy of his birth name — comes to terms with his own identity through a classic bout of wish-I’d-done-it-sooner self-discovery. It is only appropriate, then, that the film credits him as both Kal Penn and Kalpen Modi, his own birth name.
After an arranged marriage, Gogol’s mother Ashima (Tabu) follows her newfound husband, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), back to New York. The warm, saturated colors of Kolkata are replaced by the bleached monotone of the snowy northeast — an outside world that is only indexed through windows. Time passes, however, and suddenly their children are grown up. Gogol has discarded his Indian-ness in favor of a distinctly American identity, while his parents strive for the reverse. Starting out at opposite ends of the spectrum, they somehow meet in the middle; as Gogol begins to understand the history behind his own name, his parents deal with love (“like the Americans say”) in its many incarnations, most notably in their own marriage and the relationship between their son and his WASP-y (read: blonde) girlfriend.
Shot in India and the United States, the film toggles freely between the two locations. One moment, we are afforded only static shots of New York suburbia; the next, we find ourselves maneuvering through the overflowing streets of Delhi. This lack of transition space constitutes a narrative montage that parallels a similar montage of national and generational cultures — a stylized mismatch of language, art, food, literature and music. The audio tracks alone boast everything from French love songs to Euro-Indian electronica.
In removing a transitional space — and thus promoting the metaphor of the train wreck that ironically sets the plot into motion, convincing Ashoke to go abroad — director Mira Nair establishes the theme of distance that somehow managed to keep the woman next to me blubbering until the lights went up (giving “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” a run for its money).
The film deals with a mosaic of relationships, with death and with coming to terms with a disjointed notion of selfhood. It deals with a physical distance as well as an emotional and intellectual one, which I found conveyed best through the character of Ashima. Indian actress Tabu’s performance as Gogol’s mother, isolated from her family at home and abroad, is a constant and powerful reminder of this distance. One of the strengths of “The Namesake” is that the parents’ stories are given equal weight with those of their children. The film rejects the flat cliche of the first-generation parents whose narrative significance is obscured by a comedic lack of American cultural savvy (a la “Bend It Like Beckham”), and fashions characters who are more real to us because they exist and interact independently of a young person’s narrative. Sure, “The Namesake” has its moments of lighthearted “culture clash” comedy, but these moments serve less as filmic confetti and more as inlets to our understanding of the characters as they struggle to understand themselves.
“The Namesake” may risk seeming overstuffed, but Nair’s intersection of performance, pacing and style creates a concert of stories in which we can emotionally invest ourselves. In bridging these distances, which are as poignant as they are culturally appropriate, the film is itself about filling in these gaps.