“‘The Namesake’ is the story of the Ganguli family whose move from Calcutta to New York evokes a lifelong balancing act to meld to a new world without forgetting the old. Though parents Ashok (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) long for family and culture that enveloped them in India, they take great pride in the opportunities their sacrifices have afforded their children. Paradoxically, their son Gogol (Kal Penn) is torn between finding his own unique identity without loosing his heritage. Even Gogol’s name represents the family’s journey into the unknown.”
“The Namesake” is rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language.
While the novel was primarily about Gogol, the film starts back in Calcutta where his young mother Ashima (Tabu) is married for prestige not love to Ashoke Ganguli, an engineer who brings her back to America, then leaves her alone to deal with her new environment and culture. Eventually, they have kids, and their son has to deal with being mocked for being given the odd name of “Gogol” by his father after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who had some impact on his life. Rebelling against his father and his heritage, Gogol moves to Manhattan and takes on his second name “Nick” while dating Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a beautiful non-Indian girl from a wealthy family who can’t see past “Nick’s” race. When something happens to his father, Gogol reverts back to his given name, returning to Calcutta to embrace his heritage and the customs of his family, dumping Maxine for the jet-setting Indo-American Moushumi, who fits in more with his new lifestyle.
Like Nair’s previous films, “The Namesake” is a fine glimpse into Indian culture and tradition with an informed perspective on the Indian immigrant experience and the differences between cultures. Lahiri’s novel was more about Gogol, and the trailer is a bit deceptive in that it makes it seem like the movie is similarly about Kal Penn’s character. It’s somewhat vexing that Penn doesn’t actually show up until about 40 minutes into the film. Instead, the movie’s just as much about Ashima and her relationship with Ashoke, who doesn’t come across very well in the way he treats the beautiful new wife poorly and ignores her while she’s adjusting to life in America.
Other than that, this isn’t a particularly interesting story and there’s no real flow to the storytelling. Granted, some of the plot problems come from the book, but it wasn’t the smartest move to take a linear approach when adapting the story. Early in the movie, there’s a scene of Ashoke surviving a deadly train accident in India, which is quickly forgotten until 90 minutes later, when it’s used to explain why he named his son after Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. By then, it seems to be trying to get back on track with the novel and it would have been more effective to save the origin of Gogol’s name for the end of the movie. One would think that someone with Nair’s experience would understand that mixing things up with flashbacks can often be more interesting, but the way the movie jumps between Gogol and his mother in the second half makes it hard to really get into either of their characters.
Penn is better known for the hilarious comic roles he played in movies like “Harold & Kumar” and “Van Wilder,” but he ends up overcompensating to play serious drama and in doing so, comes across rather stiff. On the other hand, gorgeous Indian superstar Tabu is excellent as his mother, making her arc more interesting in some ways, as she literally ages on screen from this beautiful young woman to this wisened middle-age woman. She’s a real standout in the cast, often rising above the weak writing and cheap melodrama.
The inherent beauty of India is often on display in the scenes shot in Calcutta and around the Taj Mahal, but there’s a real disconnect with the scenes in America, which look drab and boring by comparison. Sure, it’s meant to show a contrast between the cultures, but the inconsistent quality of the film’s look is as erratic and unfocused as the film itself. There’s also a mixed message as Gogol’s new Indian wife has an affair, making you wonder whether embracing his heritage was such a good idea after all.
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