Director Mira Nair may have stumbled a bit with her 2004 filming of William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling Vanity Fair, but she’s back at the top of her game in The Namesake, telling a story that, in many ways, is no less sprawling than Thackeray’s.
At first, we wonder if the sprawl of the story (adapted by Sooni Taraporevala from the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri) might be more than one two-hour movie can handle. Nair and Taraporevala take their story forward in impressionistic vignettes—what might, in lesser hands, seem like fits and starts. There’s a prologue set in 1974 in which we meet Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) traveling on a crowded train outside Calcutta, engrossed in a book of stories by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. An older gentleman in the same compartment urges him good-naturedly not to let books do his living for him—to get out, travel, see the world. A moment later the scene ends in a terrifying convulsion as the train crashes, sending the passengers (and the viewer) into chaotic darkness.
Next we meet Ashima (Tabu), whose parents have arranged her marriage to Ashoke. Coming downstairs to meet him for the first time, she sees his American-made shoes that have been left, according to Indian custom, in the entrance hall of her house. She tries them on, likes the feel of them. Our sense (confirmed when she recalls the incident years later) is that the shoes prompt her to accept this husband she’s just about to meet.
Then Ashima and Ashoke are in America, where he has found a job in engineering. They’re strangers in a strange land—in fact, strangers even to each other.
Their first child is born. They learn that, contrary to the Indian custom of taking months, even years to name their child—the legal, or “good” name, plus a “pet” or nickname—they must have a name for the birth certificate before they leave the hospital. They decide on Nikhil for the boy’s good name, and Gogol for the pet, after Ashoke’s favorite writer.
Then the boy is beginning first grade, deciding that he wants to take Gogol as his good name. A moment later, he’s in high school (played now by Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), a sullen, thoroughly American teenager who has no interest in his ethnic roots and can’t understand why his parents would saddle him with such a stupid name.
It’s with the entrance of Penn that The Namesake comes, apparently, into sharp dramatic focus. I say “apparently” because, in fact, Nair and Taraporevala have been entirely focused all along, in a manner that becomes clear only in retrospect, as Gogol’s progress from high school to college and beyond, to adulthood, love and marriage, carries him through his changing attitudes toward his parents and India, which is as alien yet oddly appealing to him as America has always been to them.
Covering 30-plus years in just over two hours, The Namesake takes on the feel of an emotional mosaic, as Nair and Taraporevala carefully lay the apparently haphazard elements of their story before us. The movie doubles back on itself to revisit scenes—like that fateful train wreck—and finds new resonance in them. We see events in the characters’ lives, important enough when they happen, but their true impacts become clear only years later when we see where the events have led them.
Let’s have a word, too, for Penn. If, like me, you feared that his career after Harold & Kumar would dissolve into throwaway junk like Son of the Mask, Van Wilder 2 and Epic Movie, rest easy. Under Nair’s direction and with a three-dimensional person to play, he finds his artistic compass as an actor, not only aging convincingly from his teens to his 30s, but also creating a character who seems to represent a whole generation of hyphenated Americans—a character who can draw nods of recognition from an audience whatever their own heritage.
Sometimes—once in a very great while—you walk out of a theater knowing you’ve just seen a great movie. More often it takes time and perspective to make that call. But a “merely” wonderful movie—that’s something you recognize at once. The Namesake is a wonderful movie.