Written by Pollo Misterioso
Think about where you come from. More importantly, think about where your name comes from and what it means. The Namesake (2006) kindly reminds us of the importance of family history and the responsibility given to every new generation; but by the end of the film it feels strained by the length of its message.
The Namesake, from female director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding), is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri. More than just an adaptation, Nair lived in Kolkata (Calcutta), India and New York in her lifetime, which are the two settings for the film.
This is the story of the lives of the Ganghuli family, beginning with the journey to America of the father, Ashoke Ganghuli, played by Ifran Khan, and his wife Ashima, played by Tabu.The film opens with a train accident in India that determines the fate of the entire family, or at least for Ashoke, who decides that he needs to see the world after this near-fatal experience. Without straying from his cultural codes, he presents himself to Ashima’s family to arrange a marriage so that he can move to New York and start a new career and family.
When their first child Gogol (Kal Penn, Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle) is born, he is given two names, of which he can chose one to become his true name. But America removes Gogol from the practices of his immigrant parents as he tries to find a way to fit in. In a way to feel “normal” Gogol changes his name to his other given name, Nikil, after his high school graduation. We then follow Gogol through different moments in his life — graduation, girlfriends, marriage, family — as he waivers between his names. His ultimate choice of identity reflects his inner struggle between who he is and who he wants to be.
Sacrifice is what makes The Namesake powerful. Every character struggles between what they want and what they need, to retain a sense of identity. But the length of the film drags the message away from the viewer. It’s only so long that we can watch and try to understand this family. Many of the scenes are simply emotional set pieces, used to have the audience understand the characters. It’s as if we wouldn’t connect enough with these characters, so we are made to see everything, but you will form a bond with this family immediately.
There is so much careful attention paid to the customs and feelings associated with this immigrant family. Even though there was an attempt to make the two cities, New York and Kolkata, the same, the Indian culture is loved through the eyes of the camera. Everything from the clothing, the food, the city life, are all vibrant and alive. Khan gives such a warm and strong performance as Ashoke, often with close-ups on his face, showing emotion only through his eyes. He is the father who loves unconditionally, not always understood with words.
A name becomes more than just a name — it is a connection with the past, present and future. For The Namesake, one’s name is sacrifice and understanding, what it means to represent one’s heritage and oneself. If only the length of the film took its own advice and sacrificed some of the content to better itself as a whole.
The two standout DVD extras are "The Anatomy of The Namesake: A Class at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School" and "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Kal Penn." The former is definitely worth watching if you are interested in the filmmaking process. Nair gives a seminar about the process of creating this film. There are production cost breakdowns along with her explanation of her own connection with the material, a very interesting setting and insight into the film. The latter is an interesting interview with Kal Penn about his connection with the character. He read the book and fell in love with Gogol and he explains his similarities and differences with this particular character.