It is a story rife with loneliness and identity concerns. It is often profound.


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Namesake” will find your vulnerability. This story of three generations of a Bengali family is complicated, but director Mira Nair resists the temptation to explore too many sub-plots. Sticking to the immediate family, she examines one generation that carries its Indian roots to New York and one that is born there. It is a story rife with loneliness and identity concerns. It is often profound.

            In a familiar scene, two families meet to arrange the marriage of their children. It is Calcutta, 1977, when Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) meet and marry. Ashoke, a professor in New York, takes his bride to Queens to start their life together in a roomy but drab apartment in an equally drab neighborhood. By this time, director Nair has already immersed us in the vibrant colors and crowded streets of Calcutta. In contrast, if Calcutta made you claustrophobic, Queens is monochromatic and empty. It is vibrancy vs. desolation.

            Ashima and Ashoke know nothing about America and nothing about each other. Over the years they make friends in the Indian community; they have two children. It is son Gogol (Kal Penn) who will carry both the storyline and the emotional weight of cross cultural loss and gain in the family. Gogol – whose name represents an important generational thread – becomes a typically irritating American teenager. Only as he approaches adulthood does his heritage begin to claim him.

            Gogol’s parents are marked by acceptance - of their arranged marriage, of the move to America. Ashima aches for her homeland and large family, but she loves her husband and children and does not complain. Her aloneness is stark when she and Ashoke move to a suburban development. As the children leave home, she is once again alone. Her life, created beautifully by the actress Tabu, is the one that stabs. Her son Gogol grows into complications – an affair with an American WASP, another with a Bengali, and finally into adult responsibility and the interior search for his own identity that lies somewhere in the confusion of his Indian roots and American life. Actor Kal Penn makes Gogol’s life a wrenching journey.

            All the actors and their director have made a compelling whole of this very fine movie. Director Nair addresses a big life question: the powerful pull our cultures exert on us, especially as we grow older. Hear Ashima’s deep longing for her own family and country, “I don’t want to raise Gogol in this lonely country.” The family adjusts to America’s customs, but mourns their personal loss. Gogol’s discomfort in both countries touches the core of “I want to go home!” Where is home? Is he, is everyone in a bi-cultural experience destined always to be a visitor in both places? It is an equation of piercing sadness. Gogol becomes the conduit for the tug of cross cultural conflict. He thrashes it out to his own accommodation and always, nearby, his beautiful mother holds her country quietly and close.

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