Once in a rare while, I see a movie that simply takes my breath away; something achingly beautiful, so familiar it seems I know these people, or come to know them in the brief time in the theater. They keep on living after the credits roll, not in a tidy happily ever after way, but in a true, messy, lovely and painful way. Mira Nair has directed two films that fall into this category for me, Monsoon Wedding and now The Namesake.
The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a story about a family. Like every story about a family, it is actually many stories, the stories of each member of that family, together and apart. The beginning for one is the next chapter for another and sometimes, agonizingly, the last for yet another. It is the story of Ashok Ganguli, a man inspired by a grandfather’s gift and a horrible tragedy to move far from home. It is the story of Ashima, the lovely bride he takes with him, who struggles with desperate homesickness, but comes to love her new country. It is the story of Gogol, their son, raised with all the advantages of a life in American suburbia, who must come to terms with who he wants to be; an American boy with Indian parents or an Indian American? A dutiful son or his own man?
I’ve recently become enthralled with Showtime’s new series This American Life. The day after I saw The Namesake, I watched an episode of This American Life which included a story about a woman who was struggling to leave the Mormon faith without turning her back on her family. There was the most exceptional quote which seemed strangely relevant to the movie I’d seen the day before:
Choosing not to become the person your family expected is painful. You have to leave their world completely so you can make sense of your own life. But fate lures you back in whenever it can, to give you the chance to measure the distance between their world and yours, and see if its just as far as you remembered.
Gogol spends much of the film fighting that lure of fate, trying to broaden the distance between his world and his parents. Like many a young person, he discovers the hard way that a determination to be “not like” his parents is not sufficient to count as an identity.
Mira Nair is an amazing director. She find beauty everywhere; in the mad, vibrant, filthy streets of India or a non-descript cul de sac somewhere in American suburbia. Through the eyes of a newlywed wife, the landscape of a New York winter appears black and white compared to the world from which she has come. As she waves to her husband through a window as he trudges off to work in the snow, you feel the oppressiveness of that white open space upon her. It is as if he has left her to fend for herself on the moon. Fans of Mira Nair's work will recognize her touches, including an impromtu song and dance number which seems both out of place and perfect.