Figuring out who you are is never easy – it requires a delicate balance between recognition of heritage and involvement in trends of modern culture. As Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” (Fox Searchlight) shows, this task can be especially difficult when one has to balance two cultures from opposite ends of the Earth.
“The Namesake,” based off Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestselling novel, follows the Ganguli family on their multi-generational odyssey from India to America. Central to the story is Gogol (Kal Penn, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), the son of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu). As a first generation Indian-American, the young Gogol is forced to reconcile apparent incompatibilities between the lives of his parents and the lives of “normal” Americans.
As a high-school student, Gogol is rebellious and considers changing his name. In this episode the first narrative problems come to the fore. Director Mira Nair, following the format of the novel, tells a broad story across multiple generations. Gogol doesn’t even enter the film in the first half hour, where we witness the unfolding of Ashoke and Ashima’s arranged marriage.
So, we only get a brief picture of the adolescent Gogol, and his rebellious nature seems contrived. He “rocks out” to American music his parents don’t understand, and he smokes weed. He is made fun of in school for his name. With just this brief peek, we don’t receive a very complex picture of what is going on inside his head, and I think this might be due to both the script and Penn’s acting – at times he seems out of his depth. Certainly, Penn fails to develop significant nuances to his character beyond those imbedded within his lines, and this hurts the film. As Penn put it, he “kinda approached this the same way” as he approached “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
Generally, the narrative problems with the story of young Gogol remain as he ages and his appreciation of culture supposedly matures. He continues to struggle with his name, and his American girlfriend seems to drag him further away from his parents. All the while, however, the central character seems underdeveloped. Gogol is an architect, but aside from that we never get a sense of knowing who he is, how he thinks. Possibly the simplicity on this front is supposed to reflect his naivet?, but problems emerge when a family death forces Gogol to reconsider his values and we still only have a simplistic view of his thought process as a human. I think a reason for this simplicity is that, in the sweeping scope of the film Gogol is portrayed in snapshots throughout his life, yet the impetus behind the way he acts in those snapshots is, on a certain level, under-explored. So do we care about his journey at all?
Yes, but not because Gogol is particularly interesting – rather, the relationship his parents have with him and each other drives the film. Khan and Tabu deliver outstandingly nuanced performances, capturing much of the pain and loneliness inherent in a culture that sometimes can forget the importance of family. Seen through their eyes, Gogol’s simplicity is leant meaning, and we begin to understand that this is not just a film about him, but about family in general. On this level, The Namesake successfully offers an intimate portrait of the difficulty involved in raising a family in a foreign land.
As a backdrop, the camera follows the cast through Calcutta and New York, presenting interesting visual contrasts that contribute to the film’s theme. In ways, culture is presented as both unique to certain areas and universal. Calcutta may appear different from New York in its customs and aesthetics, but these differences do not change the fact that home is your family – no matter where you live, if you are with them, you are where you belong.
Ultimately, “The Namesake” does not live up to its potential – it drags at times, and the weakness of the central character prevents a pure interaction with the film’s themes. Yet the broad scope of the film is also its strength, in that cultural conflict is viewed from relative standpoints, and this creates depth to the Ganguli family’s journey. Certainly, “The Namesake” is a unique tale of the difficulty of immigration, a theme many Americans can relate to and thus empathize with.