Much feted for the rich tapestry of her Indian films such as Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair’s international career has been less consistent. While Mississippi Masala was an enjoyable though not particularly penetrating account of interracial romance, her last Hollywood movie, a version of Thackeray’s Victorian masterpiece Vanity Fair, was hugely disappointing.
Now Nair has filmed The Namesake, the 2003 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri, adapted by her long-time screenwriting collaborator Sooni Taraporevala. A bittersweet saga spanning 30 years from the 1970s to the present day, and moving back and forth between Calcutta and New York, it follows the fluctuating fortunes of the Ganguli family. But while this story of cultural and generational misunderstandings does shed interesting light on the Indian-American experience, all too often it feels like no more than a soft-centred Hollywood treatment of a rather slick bestseller.
The perspective of the film shifts between several characters. Initially, we see the young student Ashoke survive a horrific train crash on his way home to Calcutta. He is doing a PhD in New York by the time his marriage is arranged to fellow Bengali Ashima, who becomes desperately lonely and homesick after she goes to live with him in the States. She gradually acclimatizes after their son Gogol and daughter Sonali are born, and the family move in to a comfortable suburban home.
However, Ashima feels she is losing her family for a second time as her teenage children embrace American culture wholeheartedly and distance themselves from their Indian origins. In particular Gogol relishes the Western lifestyle as he becomes a successful architect and hangs out with his WASP girlfriend and her upper-crust family. Domestic tragedy causes him to reassess his values, however, and he ends up marrying a Bengali girl. But will having a common background be enough to make the relationship work?
The film is based on a series of events, rather than a plot as such, so there is not a lot of forward momentum as we witness a series of births, marriages and deaths. The somewhat trite maxim ‘Life is a journey not a destination’ springs to mind as we often see the characters in train stations and airports travelling on to the next unforeseen chapter of their story. The frequently pictured Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River in Calcutta and the Manhattan 59th Street Bridge on the Hudson symbolically suggest spanning geographical and racial divides..
This ties in with the significance of the film’s title, Gogol’s namesake being the great nineteenth-century Russian writer, whom Ashoke was reading when his train crashed – at the time a fellow passenger was urging him to travel to broaden his mind rather than just read books, which is why he later gave the name to his son. After being teased at school for having a Russian name, Gogol changes it to Nikhil (Westernized to Nick), but then changes it back again as he rediscovers his roots. It’s quite a nice idea for this uncertainty about identity and belonging to be reflected in his name-changing, but even though Gogol was an exile himself the link back to Ashoke’s past feels forced and unconvincing.
If sentimental manipulation is the main weakness of the film, the chief strength is its beautiful texture. There are a feast of memorable visual images, especially the contrasts between the sweltering colour of Calcutta and the muted wintriness of New York, as we see the newly married Ashoke and Ashima struggle to adapt in an alien environment (wonderfully captured by Frederick Elmes’s cinematography). Also, Nitin Sawhney’s extraordinarily eclectic score ranges from classical Indian music to heavy rock, with hybrid Asian-American styles in between.
As Gogol, Kal Penn does a reasonable job of evolving from mixed-up teenager playing air-guitar to confident metropolitan professional experiencing love, marriage, betrayal and loss, eventually finding his own individual self in the process. As Ashima Bollywood star Tabu also ages quite convincingly from innocent girlishness to mature womanhood, a survivor of exile and bereavement. Her marriage to Ashoke (a nicely understated performance from Irffan Khan) is tenderly depicted, as they come to depend on each other like slowly entwining plants in foreign soil.