The Namesake

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

Mira Nair’s (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, among others) new work is brilliant. It is beautifully shot, well paced and a sensitive homage to the family and love in many aspects.

Ms. Nair also creates a loving homage to the Bengali culture of India and in its partial Diaspora in America. (U.S.) Wedding ceremonies, naming ceremonies, the cultural clash between Bengali immigrant traditions and the practices in a new, for them, land of opportunity.

Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) is your average first generation middle class American teenager; with the noted exception that his calm and moderate father Ashok (Irfan Khan) has a life story of which Nick is completely unaware. In the course of the natural stages of maturation: graduating High School, going off to College, dating, marriage and starting a career, we see Nick struggling with his identity.

What I found most touching, among the many intimate moments, was the way Ashok reassures his new bride Ashima (Tabu) after bringing her from India to New York to finish his PhD in fiber optics. It is one of the sweetest and most sensitive seductions that I can ever remember portrayed on film. The way he gently reassures her in the face of her well-founded anxiety is priceless. It should be used in High School Family Skills classes throughout the world.

The central conflict arises when Nikay Gogol Ganguli tells his parents that he wants to change his name to the more average American moniker, Nick. This is an Anglicization of his proper Bengali name of Nickay. What he doesn’t tell them is that his primary motivation is he thinks that his “foreign” name is standing in the way of his plans to seduce girls. When and how his father tells him the story of his name, what that story is and the consequences for Nick/Gogol once he learns the truth, I will leave to you the potential viewer to discover. Please just trust me that it is well worth the effort.

The only quibble I had was that being used to seeing Kal Penn in “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”, “Van Wilder” and other young adult goofball comedies, there was a point about halfway where it was difficult to take his Gogol character seriously as he faced a crisis. But that resistance fades and whether it is Mr. Penn’s acting, or just my ability to bracket the issue and set it aside, it no longer mattered and his performance takes off. Tabu and Irfan Khan are veteran Bollywood stars. Here they are phenomenal as they embody their characters. These are seamless performances by great thespians.

Now I want to read Nikolai Gogol. Once you’ve watched this movie, you’ll know why. I wish I had read “The Overcoat” before seeing “The Namesake”, but it’s now on my reading list. Sooni Taraporevala wrote the screenplay, which is based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Ms. Nair chose well for her latest script.

And before I go this time, let me add that there are many, many moments of delicate, spot-on hilarity.

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