Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mira Nair's 'The Namesake' (based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’ has come in for some criticism, and there are some interesting anecdotes about some of the occurrences during the shooting of the film as well. I managed to catch a screening at New York’s indie-film-focused Angelika Film Theater, and was one of the 9 people that were assiduously waiting outside at 10 a.m for the theater to open for the 10.30 a.m show.

I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s book a few years ago, and have always had this thing for watching movies that are based on books, perhaps to see how closely the movie script has been able to stay true to the original story. In most cases (the Harry Potter series, the James Bond series, A Good Year, The Da Vinci Code, Pride and Prejudice, for example), the movies by themselves are reasonably interesting to watch, but ultimately, due to the pressure that a movie has for sticking to a reasonable time-limit, it does lose some of the essence of the book. Mira Nair, director of the highly acclaimed and entertaining ‘Monsoon Wedding’, does a fairly competent job with ‘The Namesake’, and is assisted by a repertoire of very able actors (Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn, Zuleikha Robinson).

It could have been a typical ABCD movie (‘Flavors’, and the very unimaginatively titled ‘ABCD’, anyone??), but with the script of a book already in hand, Nair’s job is easier. The movie starts off in the Calcutta of the 1970’s, and has some excellent shots of the city (like statues of Goddess Kali during the festival, the Hooghly, and the crowded streets of the City of Joy). Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), traumatized by a near-death train accident near Calcutta where Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ was his traveling companion, makes a quick trip from New York to India a few years later, in the midst of his doctorate, to have a happy, traditional, arranged Bengali wedding to Ashima (Tabu). She accompanies her husband to the States, where she slowly settles into the American way of life. There are some well-captured scenes between Ashoke and Ashima in their first few years of marriage in New York – images of cold, wintry days in the City make you feel for the fresh-off-the-plane Ashima as Ashoke does his best to be a good husband. Many years and two children later, the couple moves to the suburbs where Ashoke has a job as a professor and Ashima takes up a job at the local library. The story then starts focusing more on Gogol/Nikhil (Penn), who is trying as best he can to be an American lad inspite of his very traditional Indian parents. A visit to the Taj Mahal during one of his family holidays to India motivates him to become an architect a few years later, and his life seems to be going well in New York, with a pretty, rich, well-educated American girlfriend Max (Jacinda Barrett) to boot, short for Maxine. (Ashima, when she talks about Maxine to her librarian-friend : ‘What kind of a girl has a name like Max?' ‘Maybe she isn’t a girl’ – and the subtle shock on Ashima’s face!!)

At four, Gogol insists on his pet name being adopted as his real name, though his parents had settled on ‘Nikhil’. Years later, when he finds out at high school that the writer Gogol was a frustrated, lonely, sexually inactive man, he changes his legal name back to Nikhil. His father gifts him a copy of ‘The Overcoat’ for his graduation, and there are many instances where he almost tells Gogol the real reason for his naming him after the author, but the words die on his lips. Finally, one day, just before Ashoke is due to leave for an academic position at Ohio for six months, he tells Gogol the reason.

Revealing more about the story would be unfair to the reader who hasn’t had a chance to watch the movie yet, and to the viewer who hasn’t read the book but would like to watch the movie anyway. Nair inserts a couple of fun scenes in the movie that are not in the book (Gogol and his wife Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) on their wedding night, where the Indian- American boy and the British-Indian Francophile girl do a parody of typical Bollywood movies, for example). The movie brought out all those emotions that a modern yet well-rooted, educated young person of today would feel – empathy for all the characters, sadness, joy (I laughed out loud twice and wept a few crappy tears, yes, where applicable!!), but more than anything I’ll tell you what ‘The Namesake’ left me with – the almost-definite, almost-palpable knowledge that no matter what, I wouldn’t want to live in a country that is not my own, for the entire length of my life – maybe a few years, to ‘travel, see the world – you won’t regret it’ (as they say in the movie), but not forever.

Interesting facts: Jhumpa Lahiri actually has scenes in the movie, and Sahira Nair, who plays Ashoke and Ashima’s reel-life daughter Sonia, is Mira Nair’s real-life daughter.

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