By: Taran Adarsh, IndiaFM
Friday, March 23, 2007
A Mira Nair film is special! Over the years, Mira's films have won tremendous acclaim and admirers on home turf as well as on foreign soil. Although opinions and feedback to her films vary, there's no denying that the competent storyteller handles human relationships with astute sensitivity.
The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, is a cinematic triumph. Like Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake explores human relationships, besides raising several poignant issues in those two hours: The diverse cultures and how most children belonging to Asian-American families find themselves in a quandary. The clash of the old and the new, when asked to follow their traditional values.
Mira takes time to set things up and when you do get acquainted with the characters, you're slowly sucked into their world -- their problems, their differences, their beliefs, their sorrows. That's one of the primary reasons why The Namesake works so beautifully!
Ashoke [Irrfan Khan] and wife Ashima [Tabu], a Bengali couple, migrate to New York from Kolkata after an arranged marriage. Leaving behind her family in Kolkata, Ashima decides to adjust to a new life in New York. Soon, they are blessed with two kids -- son Gogol [Kal Penn] and daughter Sonia [Sahira Nair].
Ashoke and Ashima want their children to grow up in the land of opportunities, but retain the traditional Indian culture and customs. Gogol struggles with his name [named after Russian author Gogol] and his heritage/roots. Gogol wants to be like other American kids, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't escape reality.
Gogol attempts to find his way and identity. He starts distancing himself from his traditional parents. He changes his name to the more American-sounding Nick. He moves to another city and begins dating a white girl, Max [Jacinda Barrett], although he knows his parents expect him to marry a Bengali girl.
On a visit home, Ashoke finally explains to Gogol the relevance of his name. In the 1970s, when Ashoke was a young man, he was critically injured in a train accident. He was reading Gogol at that point of time and was engaged in a conversation with a fellow passenger, who urged him to see the world. "Every day since then," Ashoke tells Gogol, "life has been a gift."
The story takes a turn when Ashoke dies of a massive heart attack. Gogol longs to turn back the clock and appreciate his father, but it's too late by then. Later, he marries Moushumi [Zuleikha Robinson], a family friend's daughter, but Moushumi cheats on him by having an extra-marital affair with a French guy.
Although The Namesake is a lengthy journey, you don't mind it for two vital reasons: Mira Nair's deft handling of the subject material and bravura performances by each and every member of the cast. The narrative catches your attention from the very start, but the film gathers momentum when Gogol grows up and starts finding his way.
The sequences that hold your interest are mostly those that feature Irrfan and Tabu. At the start. In New York. And their last interaction together -- an unwell Irrfan calling up from a hospital -- gives you goose bumps. The film becomes an emotional journey thereafter, when Gogol goes back to his roots.
Also, the film envelopes the heat and dust of Kolkata and the snow and slush of New York beautifully. The Kolkata episode specifically -- when the family visits their ancestral home, right till their journey to Taj Mahal -- are amongst the interesting moments of the enterprise. The screenplay [Sooni Taraporevala] is just perfect.
The film is embellished with topnotch performances. Tabu is brilliant, essaying the roles of a wife as also the mother with flourish. Note her expressions when the voice on the phone informs her that her husband passed away after a heart attack. You'd agree, she's a world class actor. Irrfan Khan is splendid. Controlled and convincing, he enacts a difficult part with amazing ease. It's yet another significant performance from this supremely talented actor.
Kal Penn is first-rate. Although he's plain ordinary in the initial reels, the actor matches up to Tabu and Irrfan's level in the latter half. The transformation after his father's demise is the highpoint of his performance. Barrett and Sahira are able. Zuleikha is quite good.
On the whole, The Namesake is a classy product that caters to a niche audience mainly -- those who appreciate qualitative cinema. At the box-office, it's a film for very select multiplexes.