Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, The Namesake succeeds as an aesthetically rich and emotionally gripping tale following the immigration of a Bengali couple to New York City and then on to an obscure suburb where they raise their two children. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) puts a new spin on the familiar old world meets new world story while retaining the often cited difficulties facing South Asian immigrants. Most notably among these great trials associated with leaving friends and family behind is the individualistic, get-your-kids-off-to-college and then live on opposite coasts syndrome which is the emerging American standard.
Ashima Ganguli, the new wife of graduate student Ashok, must first inhabit a dingy, cold apartment and later deal with the complexity of having children who value family life in different ways than she does. Although the story focuses around son Gogol; (Kal Pen) experience as a second-generation American with first-generation parents, Ashima's gradual warming to the States and her formation of community is a nice contrast to semi-obnoxious albeit endearing Gogol's fast-paced teen and young adulthood experience.
After pursuing an architecture degree, Gogol has no trouble winning the affections of the quintessential American trophy girlfriend; the very pretty, very rich east coast blond (Jacinda Barrett). There is a wonderfully humorous scene where Gogol introduces Maxine (Jacinda) to his parents and the tension is so thick one wants to walk outside the theater for a breather.
When tragedy unexpectedly strikes the Ganguli family, Gogol is hit hard and undergoes mature soul-searching. Masterful direction and cinematography capture the poignancy of a humbled Gogol, while the viewer soaks in ancient Hindi rituals providing a kind of catharsis in deep-rooted tradition that's most unexpected at this juncture. After his disillusionment with American culture, Gogol woos a Bengali dream-girl, the outrageously sexy and bright Zuleikha Robinson, with little difficulty. Zuleikha's character is unfairly dealt with however, as her "westernization'" is seen as overly sexualized, when actually her ambitions run farther than being a "perfect Bengali wife" and "cooking samosas" for her husband. Except for the treatment of Zuleikha, the directors' judgments are beautifully subtle and allow a seamless interaction to take place between viewer and the unfolding story.
As soon as the plot leads you to resolve wicked American ways must be rejected, Nair jumps in and throws you for a loop again. She doesn't allow us to condemn or embrace American or Bengali culture; instead it is a sifting process, a search for balance between cultural conservatism and modernism. We are drawn into the film and experience similar feelings of indecision and confusion confronted with the characters.
The Namesake is anything but ordinary. A seductive soundtrack by popular Bengali musician Nitin Sawhney provides an enchanting backdrop to a visual banquet in the style of Nair's last smash hit on the inde circuit, Monsoon Wedding.
The Namesake can be seen at the Little Theatre in downtown Rochester. Student tickets weekend matinees cost $6.