Movie Review: The Namesake

9 May

The Film

The Namesake is a mediocre film based on an equally middling eponymous novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning London born author of Indian descent. It is a coming of age story of an ABCD by “another badly confused Deshi” (ABCD – Lahiri) [Washington Post]

The novel traces the story of Gogol Ganguli, son of first-generation Indian immigrants – Ashoke and Ashima – presented in the movie as cardboard characters, whose one-dimensional struggles superfluously adorn the movie –and his struggle to come to terms with his cross-cultural identity. Gogol goes through various expected phases of someone shooing away a psychological ghost – unexpressed anger, rebelliousness, and then rapprochement that comes at the behest of his father’s unexpected death and later through his wife’s infidelity. While the issues are real, they seem to have been frozen and then perfunctorily staked over by an inane screenplay by Nair’s usual collaborator – her Harvard peer Sooni Taporevala. It appears that by trying to cram in too much – a bi-generational story – it fails to do justice to any of the stories.

Samosas, Rasogullas, and Indian Relatives

Nair captures the perversities of an immigrant’s life with great humor and a great eye for detail. We get to sit in the endless uncle-aunty parties full of Bengali food and watch as our little ABCDs squirm when talked to by the way ‘uncool’ uncle and aunties. We get to see how the American raised children take in the soot-laden, chaotic Indian cities and the clinging relatives on their visits to India. Of course, the Indian relatives themselves remain caricatures of humans.

Gogol wants his overcoat back

Gogol’s overcoat has been done a disservice. Much like the name of Virginia Woolf was expropriated by the mediocre and unrelated eponymous play, “Who is afraid of Virgina Woolf?”, Lahiri leans on the exoticness of Gogol to rescue her. Lahiri doesn’t have the intellectual depth to even throw in a line about why Russian authors were popular in India. Gogol’s deeply ironical and existentialist short story Overcoat becomes a peg on which Lahiri tries to hang ‘the namesake’, Gogol Ganguli’s pretentious superfluous problems.

Visual Metaphor and Nair

The Atlantic Ocean shimmers exhibiting a grey luminescence; the humid chaos of Calcutta streets is viscerally alive; and the forlorn winter landscape of New York, marked by decay, stoically real. Mira Nair is a master auteur. She has an astute eye for capturing the elemental affective truth of a place. Nair is also edacious. While she has a wonderful aesthetic eye, she uses it with the indulgence of a nouveau aesthete. Nair unhesitatingly and unfailingly puts her camera in front of every scar, every photogenic shot, and includes it.

Editing: Weaving a tapestry with unusual neighbors

The movie has been edited in a way that provides for abrupt transitions between different environments. It appears to be a deliberate strategy to highlight the often times almost schizophrenic existence of an immigrant in multiple environments, and continuation and disruption that characters feel as they straddle (or travel between) different microcosms.