Mira Nair’s The Namesake adds a new dimension to the phrase “when art imitates life”. Her poignant execution of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a lesson in displaying fine creativity and authenticity while maintaining the essence and heart of an original work—The Namesake is an exciting adaptation because of it’s modernity and relevance, Mira Nair’s return to the director’s chair after Vanity Fair, Kal Penn in a role that is not founded on cannabis, and—most importantly—the return of the same jodi that left us in awe after Maqbool: Tabu and Irfan Khan.
The screens missed Tabu since her Shakespearean venture, as her subsequent releases were delayed or low-key projects. In The Namesake, she returns in all her glory to play Ashima, a Bengali woman who marries an NRI professor named Ashoke (Ifran Khan). She leaves her home, her family, and her life to settle in a nation where isolation and alienation rule her environment. The Namesake adroitly chronicles her evolution into a woman who falls in love with her second homeland, but never forsakes her first.
And behind the success of this woman’s metamorphosis is a man - her husband. Ashoke is indeed her pillar of support; he is a man that values Ashima and the life and family he makes with her. He found solace and inspiration in the works of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, a Ukranian writer most famous for his short story “The Overcoat”. So inspired was Ashoke by Gogol that he named his first born exactly that: Gogol (Kal Penn).
When Gogol grows up and learns the traumatic and repressed biography of his namesake, he seeks to dissociate from it, regarding it as a parenting mistake on the parts of Ashima and Ashoke. He chooses the name Nikhil, which serves as a compromise to his need for a less connotative name (because in America, Nikhil becomes Nick) and his parents need for a link to their past and their inspiration. But it is not only his name with which he wishes to part. It is also the perspective of his parents, a cultural gap, that he is unable to bridge. But it is not that he does not love his parents. Rather, he takes them for granted, something he realises only upon the death of his father. At this time, he also realises his Caucasian girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) cannot relate to his cultural background and way of dealing with realtionships. Despite living the American dream—good school, great job, home in the ‘burbs—Nikhil always wanted to be more American. When he loses one of his last links to his ancestral land, it turns out that Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli is far more Indian than he ever imagined.
Finally, a Bengali girl, Maushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) comes into Nikhil’s life, and he learns to love beyond race and culture. But he also learns, the hard way, that a successful relationship is about compatibility, something that transcends race, religion, and culture.
The transformation of Lahiri’s empowering novel to a taut screenplay is an incredible feat. The immigrant life and perspective is given a very universal tone. You don’t need to be Indian to fall in love with this movie. All you have to be is human. This is also credited to Nair’s directorial vision, which captures the themes of isolation, alienation, and coming of age in every frame.
But the most fantastic aspect of this film is the characterisation of Ashoke. It is a complete revelation from the novel, where his prominence is minimal. In The Namesake, Ashoke is a real man, with real emotions and sensitivities. Yes, the movie is about the evolution of Ashima and Nikhil, but his character is the crux of these evolutions, which Nair makes most evident. But this exemplary character could not be better acted by anyone other than Irfan Khan. Truly, this is his greatest work yet. His lackadaisical but devoted tone, coupled with the love and perhaps sense of being indebted to Ashima for accepting him, surface with an irrepressible intensity. A simpleton who wants nothing more than to pass on his values and develop a connection with his son, and to cultivate a loving relationship with his wife, Irfan Khan is flawless.
It also helps that he has an immaculate chemistry with Bollywood’s most talented actress, Tabu. Tabu is the heart and soul of this film. Her performance is laced with as many nuances as the novel itself. The “immigrant” can be a vague concept that fails to rise above the stereotypes and clichés. But Tabu’s portrayal of a woman who grows to love America as her home and to look beyond the cultural and racial differences between her family and her surrounding world is impressive beyond description. To argue this performance is on par with her work in Maqbool, Chandni Bar, Astitva, and Virasat speaks volumes of her accomplishment in an English medium.
Finally, Kal Penn is exceptional in a role that he has essentially lived his entire life, being born and raised in America. The conflict experienced by his character (that of Gogol Ganguli compared to Nikhil “Nick” Ganguli) is one he has dealt with first hand. Kal Penn’s real name is Kalpen Suresh Modi. He chose an Anglicised name to further his career, just like Nikhil. Beyond that, his understanding of emotion behind betrayal, a sense of alienation within his own home, and grief is surprising considering his most famous work portrays him as a weed-smoking doctor. Kal Penn has arrived as a true actor with a penchant and flair for drama. Here’s hoping he will cultivate this talent throughout his career.
A movie so close to the lives of so many, yet one that can be appreciated by all. The genius behind The Namesake is its direction and performances. An inspirational look at life, The Namesake is not to be missed.