BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala) offers this worthy rendering of the book The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Rich scenery and a keen sense of timing and silence draw us in and rivet us to the screen. But a little less satisfying than Nair’s execution is the story itself, which leaves us wanting something more.
The Namesake is about understanding one’s legacy and about appreciating one’s family, which can be challenging under the simplest of circumstances, never mind when two generations span opposite cultures.
Alternating between past and present and between the U.S. and India, Namesake juxtaposes two worlds that are so drastically unalike. We swing between the Indian culture—steeped in reverence and ritual that thrives on family and elevates its elders—and America, where almost nothing is sacred and even that is subject to change.
Ashoke and Ashima have emigrated from Bengal, India, to raise two children in America, where their rich traditions have little place, and which mother Ashima calls the loneliest place on earth. We witness the contrast over and over, especially in their son, Gogol, who was born in New York. We see him in his bedroom as a young boy where he’s listening to painfully loud music while his father is trying to speak to him. And we see him as a grown man who is in love with an American woman named Max, who is clueless about his heritage.
Universal themes about values and identity play out through the personal history of father Ashoke. The story is built on the mystery of “what’s in a name,” which brings us to the title. Gogol wants to discard his unwieldy moniker for his American name, Nick. But father Ashoke treasures the name Gogol, for reasons he reveals in stages. And here lies the little problem with this story. The reason behind Gogol’s name—which, granted, comes from a dramatic event in the father’s life—gets built up to a high climax. But this history is not legacy but sentiment. What’s behind the name has great meaning to Ashoke, but it spins melodrama into an otherwise worthy story. And when all the mysteries are revealed, The Namesake will leave you with greater insight into the differences between cultures. But as far as a good story goes, it will leave you a little disappointed. B-