Bridging cultures and generations, the story of a family's smiles, tears

Posted: March 16, 2007

Mira Nair's The Namesake is a celebration of real family values - of the love between father and son, between husband and wife, mother and daughter. It's about cultural heritage and personal legacy, about the things that change across generations, and the things that stay the same. It's a tearjerker, sometimes, and sweetly funny at other moments. It's near perfect.

Adapted from the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake begins in Calcutta in the 1970s, when Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), a young Bengali intellectual who a few years earlier survived a devastating train accident, enters into an arranged marriage with Ashima (the Bollywood star Tabu). She is beautiful, a classically trained singer who can recite Wordsworth - and she is more independent, and free-thinking, than her unquestioning acceptance of a stranger as husband would suggest.

Ashoke is living, and studying, in New York, and that is where the new Mr. and Mrs. Ganguli move after their wedding. It's winter, and the apartment is cold and run-down, and Ashima is slow to adjust to the differences, climatic and cultural. But Ashoke is a loving, gentle husband, and soon the couple are on their way in pursuit of the American Dream. A job is found (Ashoke is an engineer). A house is purchased. Children are born: a son, Gogol, named after Ashoke's favorite author, and a daughter, Sonia.

Nair ushers The Namesake along unhurriedly, observing the telling details of life in the States, and in India. Slowly, the focus changes from Ashoke to Gogol, played, as a young man, by Kal Penn, of the stoner cult hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

A first-generation American, Gogol rebels against many of the traditions extolled by his parents and his army of "aunties." He also wants nothing to do with his name, a source of ridicule at school. Instead, he goes by Nick - his formal name is Nikhil.

Nick falls into a serious romance with WASPy Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a frisky blond Manhattanite with well-off parents and a country house by the water. He went to Yale University, studied architecture, and is intent on mapping his own route, shorn of the bothersome attachments and rituals his parents brought with them from Calcutta. But then things happen, as things are wont to do, and Gogol/Nick must reexamine his relationships, and himself.

Penn is terrific, keyed-in, alive in his role. So too are Khan and Tabu, in their incarnation as newlyweds, and later as middle-aged parents, seeking comfort from each other amid the silences of an empty house. (Daughter Sonia, played by Sahira Nair, has also moved on, and moved out.) A latecomer to the proceedings, a sophisticated South Asian beauty named Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), brings the possibility of tidy closure to The Namesake.

But things are rarely that simple, or convenient, and Nair - who understands the complexities, and unexpected possibilities, inherent in the human experience - isn't one to wrap things up in a neat bow. Human drama on an intimate scale, The Namesake is rich, and revelatory.


The Namesake ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Mira Nair, directed by Nair, written by Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, photography by Frederick Elmes, music by Nitin Sawhney, distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.

Ashoke ............................. Irrfan Khan Ashima. . . Tabu

Gogol. . . Kal Penn

Maxine........................ Jacinda Barrett Moushumi. . . Zuleikha Robinson

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Ritz Sixteen/NJ


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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