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April 15, 2007

Movie Review – The Namesake (2007)

by RISHI AGRAWAL

The Namesake 031507

It continues to sadden me when the marketing for a film is deceptive, especially when it is a good film. I wonder how many people will be disappointed and, subsequently, not recommend the film to their friends. I also wonder if the film won’t reach its true audience. The Namesake is not as egregiously misadvertised as some recent films (Pan’s Labyrinth and Bridge to Terabithia come to mind) but the trailers focus on Kal Penn’s character Gogol and his struggles with his Indian heritage while growing up in America. Though this is an important part of the film, the commercials do not emphasize that this is a story about a family, not just one character.

The film opens in India with a young Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) on a train to see his grandfather. A fellow passenger encourages Ashoke to travel the world and to visit America, but Ashoke is more interested in the book he is reading by the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke repeats a line that his grandfather taught him, that books are a way to travel without moving an inch. Ashoke then survives a near-fatal train wreck and considers this a sign that perhaps he should see America.

After living in New York for two years, Ashoke returns to India to find a bride: Ashima (Tabu). They live in the United States and have two children, Gogol and Sonia (Sahira Nair). The film chronicles their lives over more than three decades. I should point out that there is very little in the film about Sonia – the film concentrates on the parents and Gogol.

I think what really works about this film is that director Mira Nair captures a lot of little moments that humanize the characters. When Ashima comes to first meet Ashoke, she finds his stylish shoes that are made in America, left outside the sitting area. She can’t resist slipping them on and taking a few steps before meeting Ashoke, seemingly less impressed with her future husband than with his footwear. In another scene, the Gangulis visit India and a teenage Gogol jogs next to a rickshaw containing his family because he feels it is dehumanizing to be pulled by another human being. All the tiny moments in this film aggregate to equal real lives and characters that we can care about.

The film, an adaptation of a Jhumpa Lahiri novel, is quite ambitious in its scope in order to try to capture the spirit of the book. The large amount of time covered in the film seems necessary to show these characters evolve. We see some of Gogol’s childhood, then some scenes with him as a callous teenager, and watch him become a mature, responsible adult. I do not think I would enjoy the film as much if there was not so much transformation in the characters.

Unfortunately, the scope of the film might also be its weakness. The Namesake seems rushed at points, trying to jam too many scenes too close together. Through the use of cuts, Nair pushes the film forward in time, sometimes quite dramatically. The film does not necessarily need the narrative gristle to connect the scenes – an attentive audience should be able to piece together the transitions, but occasionally the effect is disconcerting.

I will sometimes argue that films need to be cut to get down to the essentials, but, in this film, I really feel like I could have used another twenty minutes. I just feel like I wanted to know more about the motivations of these characters, especially towards the end, when their lives take dramatic turns. Though this might seem like a criticism, it is really high praise for this film, because who would want a bad movie to be longer?

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that my reaction to this film was very personal. The journey of the Ganguli parents was very similar to the one taken by my own parents in coming to the United States. So it was difficult not to put myself in Gogol’s shoes, when his personal history was so similar to mine. So, even though I highly recommend the film, your mileage may vary.

3 1/2 stars


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