Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Namesake"

I've never seen a film from director Mira Nair all the way through before, but if they're anything like this one, I'll add them to the list. There's a warmth and a tenderness to this movie that permeated every frame, and it captures the feeling of being slightly out of step with the world surrounding you. In that respect, it's similar to Persepolis, which I reviewed last year, and I suspect it's a very familiar story to immigrants and ex-patriots living anywhere in the world. Not only the first-generation immigrants, but the struggle of their children, often caught with one foot in one culture and one foot in another, frustrated that they are part of both and yet not wholly belonging to one. It's also a very skillful portrayal of two generations of a family, exploring the course of their lives in such a way that both are sympathetic even in their different perspectives. One of the people I viewed it with compared it to Zhang Yimou's To Live, and I think it's a fair comparison; though the family there didn't deal with relocating to a totally foreign culture, the film did explore the course of their lives during the major upheavals going on in China in the mid-twentieth century. It's in the exploration of the human characters that the films both plant themselves and through which the audience is allowed to explore something that they might never experience personally, but is still mostly universally understood.

The trailer for this movie is rather misleading. I saw it sometime last year and was expecting something very different, and I'm honestly glad for that. I love it when I can watch a movie and not be able to predict where it's going. There were instances where I did, and there were cinematic tip-offs about them, but they're pretty minor and they didn't detract from the experience of watching it. But really, overall, I think my biggest pet peeve about the film is its trailer (which isn't the film's fault, but the marketing department).

The impression I had was of a young interracial couple embarking on a journey to India to connect with the man's heritage and in the process discover things about his parents' lives from before he was born. That is not what the movie's about at all. It's much less trite and contrived than that, it's a much more personal story, and it doesn't indulge in the surface-level exotifying of the culture that the trailer seems like it might. At its core, it's about a family living their lives, stuck between two cultures, and in particular about the eldest son coming to terms with his identity as part of both. I think that Gogol (Kal Penn) is a central character, certainly, but I don't think he's the very center of the film. I felt like the parents, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) were both equally as important and equally weighted. We see their lives first, get to know them a bit before they know each other, and then watch them grow into a loving couple, and then into loving parents. We understand the choices they make, we understand them as people first, and we never lose that insight even as the focus switches to their children. I found myself able to empathize, sympathize, and understand where both the parents and the kids were coming from, even as they clashed, and it was a wonderful thing to be able to see. The kind of perspective the film offers is one I appreciate more as I get older and marvel at how narrow and self-centered my focus was when I was a teenager and young adult. I think part of me is grateful when I see that in films because it reassures me that I wasn't the only one going through the same thing.

There are so many wonderful things to say about this film. I love that it doesn't vilify either culture-- Ashoke and Ashima come to America for opportunities for their kids, not because they're fleeing some terrible injustice in India; their son Gogol's WASPish college girlfriend is a nice, intelligent person with loving parents who cares for him, but just doesn't understand his family's culture enough to be there for him in the way he needs; his wife later wasn't a bad person, she just wanted something different than he did and they weren't a good match; Ashima's feelings of isolation aren't because of specific cruelty or insensitivity of Americans, but because she doesn't feel completely at home in the culture and misses India; Gogol's high school classmates tease him about his name, but he does have friends who stand up for him as well. There's no "bad guy" here, just the gentle friction of people trying to find their place in a society that isn't quite made for them, and their own ways of dealing with it. It's a very thoughtful movie, a carefully and even lovingly crafted movie with particularly warm and nuanced performances by Khan and Tabu, and absolutely beautifully shot. Penn does a fine job with his role, and it's a nice dramatic turn for him after the success of the Harold and Kumar movies, but it's Khan and Tabu whose performances shine here and drive the heartbeat of the film.

It's based on a novel with the same title by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I'll most likely end up reading it just to be able to spend more time with the characters. I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in Indian culture, or in beautiful film, or to anyone who has ever been part of a family.


  1. You've made this sound amazing. I'll be taking a look. Great post.

  2. I hope you like it. I sometimes worry that I get so wrapped up in the things I like about a movie that I overhype it. But I was really moved by this one.