Mira Nair’s The Namesake comes at you like a small, intimate chamber drama, but it’s much bigger than you’d guess from the modest scale of its most dramatic events—bigger-hearted and larger in its spiritual and emotional reach.
Adapted from a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film’s story—a multi-generational family saga—has a train-wreck scene, which recurs; two death scenes, each presented offscreen to touching effect; and two Bengali wedding scenes, both portrayed with concise combinations of ironic detail and reverent calm. But such stylish sidestepping of the potentials for melodramatic hysteria looms as a major strength of the film and its main characters, an Indian family that immigrates to New York in the 1970s.
Ashoke (Irfan Khan) marries Ashima (Tabu) in a traditional ceremony in India and then takes her to the New York tenement in which he has already begun to settle. Their children, son Gogol (Kal Penn) and daughter Sonia (Sahira Nair), are born in the U.S., and both become Americanized in ways that grate against their parents’ variously conflicted attitudes toward their traditional backgrounds. Gogol’s questing courtships of two separate young women, the American blonde Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and the intellectual and rebellious Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), are central events in the second half of the film.
The greatest charms of this calm, gently expansive drama are in the unstable fortunes and soulful resiliency of these half-dozen characters, and Gogol and his parents in particular. Even as she reveals their foibles, director Mira Nair coaxes us to see each of her characters with an open-mindedness that seems both generous and undeluded. And the shifting sympathies of the characters ultimately manifest themselves in the film’s embrace of their variously evolving takes on the battles of modernity with the most durable of ancient traditions.
That gracious flexibility in the film’s vision is echoed in its music, much of which is a kind of international pop with traditional Indian inflections, but with shifts to something more purely traditional at one crucial moment in particular.