REVIEW: The Namesake [2007]

“Out from Gogol’s overcoat”

Everyone has regrets during the course of their life. Mira Nair’s new film, The Namesake, seeks to expound on that idea by showing how a family can live through, overcome, and circumvent them. Based on a well-received novel—I may pick it up to check out in the future—the story revolves around a Bengali family whose mother and father have immigrated to America to give their children an opportunity for a life with limitless possibilities. One’s heritage and culture can sometimes seem daunting to uphold, especially when in the land of the free, where it is much easier to just leave it on the side of the road as you continue on your own course. If this movie does anything, it shows how even if you don’t feel like you are doing something wrong, tragedy can strike, bringing you back to the reality of knowing there are more people then yourself in life, and the way you lived it might have been completely opposite of how you should have.

The Namesake truly encompasses its viewers with the world that it is taking a glimpse into. We have the American traveler back home in India to find a bride, and his future love’s acceptance of leaving all she has worked for to go halfway around the world with him. Ashoke and Ashima are very traditional in their ways and assimilate into America, slowly moving up to a home of their own and two young children to share life with. The Ganguli family goes through many ordeals and each is shown in a realistic way allowing the audience to care for these people. Anyone watching will be able to see a mirror onscreen to his or her own reality and the trials and tribulations of growing old and independent while still trying to keep the love as close-knit as it was before. However, while a good portion of the film deals with Ashoke, and especially Ashima’s journey to America, this background is really setup to bring us to the point where the story begins to follow young Gogol through his maturity into a man. The movie is titled The Namesake, after all, lending itself to be a tale of the offspring. That aspect is shown right from the start when Ashoke is shown on a train that eventually derails. We are given no answers, but instead a fade to black and the start of our journey.

Life needs a bit of tragedy in order to allow our eyes to be opened to the fragility of it all. We can’t spend our lives living without fear, because it is that transient quality that keeps us going and striving for more. Ashoke was slowly becoming a robot in his life, visiting his grandfather like clockwork each month, heeding his words that books allow one to travel without moving an inch. That was a life he was beginning to enjoy until the fateful event on his train ride that changed his life forever. It was this instance, marked by a novel he was reading by the author Gogol, which begins it all. It is also this moment that commences his son’s descent into conformity himself. What liberates the father eventually becomes the thing that makes his son build walls around his life. It is manifested by the strange first name, in honor of a suicidal eccentric, but really is the clash between his family’s traditional ways and the independent life he sees in front of him that causes the struggle within. Rather than accepting who he is so that he can continue on any course of his choosing, he finds he is ashamed, denouncing his very essence, feeling that conforming is the only path he has for success. Life is very cyclical, though, and Gogol himself confronts a moment like no other, one that thaws his heart and soul, allowing him to finally see what life is about. Live with no regrets and you can deal with whatever comes your way.

Besides this being a beautiful story, it brings along with it some wonderful performances. Our main character of Gogol is played to great effect by Kal Penn. Having a filmography consisting of mostly comedic and stereotypical roles, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his casting. However, besides some moments of strain trying to express the rebelliousness and awe of a high school graduate, Penn really takes the role from college years and beyond making it his own. His performance is full of emotion and needs him to be able to turn on the two halves of his life in favor of the other. His confusion and inability to choose which way to go holds everything together. The real stars, though, are Tabu and Irrfan Khan, playing Ashima and Ashoke respectively. Tabu is wonderful playing both the scared and cautious newcomer to the US and the resilient, loving mother who holds her family as the most valuable possession she has. As for Khan, he embodies his character like no other. Here is a man with so much intelligence and compassion, all trapped inside his calm demeanor and businesslike façade. These two partook in an arranged marriage, yet the love between them is overwhelming. Never do they need to speak of it aloud, nor show it with more than a smile.

How the tale progresses will leave you with a mingled feeling of both heartbreak and hope. The Ganguli family goes through a lot as it evolves through its generations, passing on wisdom learned. Every moment is real and no second is wasted. Even when I thought it shouldn’t have continued on past a point I saw as a fitting conclusion, Nair proved me wrong by bringing us a new journey, necessary for the story to be whole. If you don’t leave this film feeling the necessity to see your family, not to verbally express your feelings, but just to acknowledge that they do and always will exist, your heart is already too far gone.

The Namesake 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] From left: Tabu and Irrfan Khan in THE NAMESAKE. Photo Credit: Abbot Genser
[2] Jacinda Barrett and Kal Penn in THE NAMESAKE. Photo Credit: Abbot Genser

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