What's in a name? Plenty.

'Namesake' is rich story of Indian immigrants, father's resolve

Posted: March 16, 2007

After "The Pursuit of Happyness" I didn't think I'd see a better movie about dads for a decade - maybe that's why I was bowled over by "The Namesake."

It's true Mira Nair's story of Indian immigrants encompasses much more than fatherhood - it spans decades and continents to give us a rich picture of assimilation and its tricky cultural calculus.

But the performance of Irrfan Kahn as the patriarch, a fellow who makes a home and future for his family in a strange land, is so subtle and so good it became, for me, the heart of the movie.

He's come to America to teach engineering, and I suppose there's some symbolism there - by the time "The Namesake" is over, we realize he's quietly built a structure capable of carrying his wife and children to the limits of their potential. We all wish we were as good as this guy.

Of course, his gifts aren't always apparent to his kids. His son (Kal Penn), for instance, wonders why he's been saddled with the name Gogol, inspired by the Russian writer whose novel "The Overcoat" saved his father's life during a train accident in India.

Dad believes there's good luck in the name, and also resonance - "The Overcoat" is Gogol's story of a man who loses his way when he begins to covet something fine and new, and the Bengali father wants some of that message to sink in with his American son.

Nair shrewdly (and with rare affection) shows the nuanced but crucial ways in which cultural change takes place. The family is content in a prosperous, suburban Indian-American community, but trips back to India show just how much the children have been modified and imprinted by their native country.

The emotional managing of this turmoil falls mostly to his wife (Tabu, also excellent in "The Namesake") who insistently but gracefully reminds her children why they are unique.

Kahn and Tabu are so good that "The Namesake" seems to weaken when the multigenerational story moves to the son, and events occur to make him the backbone of the story.

The narrative here also gets a little more strained. Gogol finds himself torn between a patrician WASP fiancee (Jacinda Barrett), almost cartoonishly representative of a Gatsbyish dream of America, and a Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) who represents the pull of his ancestral home.

"The Namesake" doesn't finish strongly, but the impression left by Kahn is strong enough to carry the movie. I doubt it will be strong enough to be remembered by next awards season, as it should be. (Ditto for the terrific score.) *

Produced by Lydia Dena Pilcher, Mira Nair, directed by Mira Nair, written by Sooni Taraporevala.

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