Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Namesake by Mira Nair

I am so in love with this movie! Of course, any movie which starts with a train trundling across India is going to get my attention, but Mira Nair did such a good job of it, I can't help but love it. I had been a bit worried, after Monsoon Wedding, that it would be a little more "high energy" than my reading of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel. But while she necessarily had to cut big chunks out, the movie was a pretty fine translation overall, very subtle and understated.

Ashoke Ganguli goes home from New York, where he is doing a PhD in fibre optics, to find himself a wife, Ashima. It is an arranged marriage, so we have the rather novel experience of seeing them flirt, ever so gently, with each other after they are married and back in New York. They are one of the most lovely couples you could ever hope to meet, and spend their lives loving each other.

They have a son, Gogol (played by the fellow who played Kumar in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), who is the central character, the namesake of the title. He has been so named in honour of Nikolai Gogol - a fellow who spent most of his life away from his homeland, just like the Gangulis. There's a brilliant scene where his dad is about to tell Gogol why he has this name but can see Gogol is uninterested and bites his tongue. You just know there's a lot of disappointment there, but this movie is never showy about its emotions.

Gogol is born in New York, and grows up more American than Indian - although a visit home to see the Taj Mahal does inspire him to pick architecture as his career. And so Gogol goes off with an American girl, Max, ("what kind of name is Max for a girl? is he a boy") and forgets about his parents, at least by Indian standards (where a daily update seems to be the norm). He really becomes part of Max's family, which makes for a very nice life for him. His name is such an embarrassment to him that he drops it. Poor Ashima reaches the point that her kids are strangers to her, completely foreign in their American ways (there are, however, some cute scenes where both she and Ashoke pick up some slang and sling it about).

But when Askoke dies, this is the catalyst for Gogol re-connecting with his Indian heritage and, at least most of the time, with his original name. Max can't get that he wants to be with his family, wants to undertake all of the ceremonial elements associated with his father's death, doesn't want her to be there when he goes back to India to spread his ashes ("That's something for the family to do." "Aren't we family?") But here is where living in America for 25 years shows its impact on Ashima - as far as I can tell (from other Indian movies and books), the normal Indian thing would be for her family to then look after her. Instead, she remembers the things she wanted to do before she got married, and gets on and does them. She's such a stylish and dignified lady, is Ashima, I just love her - that's her in the centre (below) alongside Ashoke:
My last comment is on the cinematography - I don't know much about filming technique, but this film was never very brightly lit, indeed it struck me that the lighting had been deliberately subdued, which added to the dignified tone of the movie. Of course, there were times when it broke out - we see the chaos of India, they have a couple of parties, when Gogol finally does marry, he and his wife even engage in a bit of bollywood style dancing.



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