Based on the 2003 novel by US author Jhumpa Lahiri, Namesake is the sixteenth film from director Mira Nair and it is one of her best.
There is considerable tension in the film, which is first about a young Indian couple (Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, played by Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu) who have an arranged marriage and then move to the New York to begin a new life. Secondly, it's mainly about their first child, their son Gogol and his struggles to live his life both to please his parents and to please himself.
Symbolic of the cultural confusions the son faces is the fact that his name, Gogol, was hastily chosen for his birth certificate, rather than wait for this grandparent's arrival from India to help select it, months later.
While away at school, he begins a relationship with a beautiful white woman and is practically accepted as a member of her family. Meanwhile, his mother laments the fact that her son prefers to spend holiday time with a family other than his own.
The film has its sweet, cute moments, but the overall tone is one of struggle without idealistic endings. We see birth, loneliness, and death, and it's all wrapped up in the struggle to adhere to one's traditions while seeking acceptance in society at large. This is most poignantly shown when the girlfriend seeks to comfort Gogol by sticking with him but he rejects her overtures that would seem perfectly normal to most people raised in western cultures.
Before our hero Gogol (played by Kal Penn, best known for the stoner film Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) heads off to college, he meets a family who have recently arrived from England, including their daughter (Zuleikha Robinson, perhaps best known for guest starring in the X-Files spin off The Lone Gunmen), who is same age as him but who looks very much like "Ugly Betty" and has a snooty personality to match her looks. Of course, she shows up later as an incredible hottie who gets involved in Gogol's life in a big way.
The themes of cultural confusion, struggle, and the triumph over adversity could have been better demonstrated. I haven't read the book so I don't know how true the film is to it. Without a doubt, there are tens of thousands of people whose lives have paralleled that of the Ganguli family, by arriving in the "west" and doing the best that they can to give their children a better life than they had in the "old country." The price to pay for such prosperity, however, is having your children slip away from the traditional roots that you have laid down for them. It's not so bad for them that they find their own way when they head off for college and university, but growing up different from the other kids can have devastating consequences in some cases.
The acting of the main players in the film is solid and believeable. The only flaw in the film is the script. The soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney is also sublime and sedate. It's interesting to note that the film's star, Kal Penn, changed his name from Kalpen Modi, to make himself more marketable, much like the character he plays in the film. From watching the previews, however, I was under the impression that the name he wanted to change was the family's last name and not his first name.