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Hundreds of good novels, and thousands of lesser ones, have been adapted as films, despite overwhelming evidence that the process seldom works. Condensing the typical novel into an average movie’s running time requires divesting not only plot but also characterization and mood. Yet Indian-born director Mira Nair—who a few years ago was defeated by her attempt to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—proves it’s possible to simulate the lived-in feel of an episodic family saga with her complex, engaging version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
Appropriately, the story begins on a train, evoking classic Indian films while heralding the fact that this will be the story of a journey. Engineering student Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is going to visit his grandfather when a stranger encourages him to travel beyond India. Ashoke is unreceptive, but after the train derails and he narrowly survives, the young man decides to alter his path. He moves to New York and, after a return to Calcutta to collect a bride, starts a family. His wife, Ashima (Tabu), is a bit overwhelmed at first by the United States’ wealth and iciness (both human and meteorological), but she’s soon busy raising two children. Ashoke and Ashima plan to take their time naming their first, a son, in the leisurely manner of their homeland, but they’re told the baby can’t leave the hospital with a blank line on his birth certificate. So he’s given the “pet name” Gogol and the “good name” Nikhil. Gogol is derived from the author Ashoke was reading on his fateful train ride: Nikolai Gogol, another man who spent much of his life abroad.
While continually debating whether he prefers Gogol or Nikhil—or, later, Nick—the boy becomes a mildly rebellious, mostly Americanized teen who listens to rock and smokes pot. (He’s well-played by slacker-comedy specialist Kal Penn; Nair has said she added the weed scenes in tribute to Penn’s role in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.) Gogol eventually becomes an architect whose principal affront to his family is his blond girlfriend, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), who’s affectionate in public and overly familiar with her potential in-laws. But an unexpected death in the family shocks Gogol back to tradition. He marries Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a fellow Bengali expatriate he had met (and hated) when she was a child. But her name and background are no guarantee that she’ll play the role of a wife as dutifully as Ashima did. Gogol’s choice of Moushumi over Maxine initially suggests that the film will be the story of a man’s return to his roots, but The Namesake is smarter, messier, and more open-ended than that.
Nair is probably best known for 2001’s likable if lightweight Monsoon Wedding, which reveled in the vivid hues of a Punjabi marriage ceremony. There are weddings and other rituals in The Namesake, as well as family visits to sensuous, overwhelming, and backward India. But this time the bright colors are dimmed by the chill of Northeastern winters, and the pastel shades imply the cultural dilution that’s felt in very different ways by both Gogol and Ashima. A longtime expatriate herself, Nair clearly feels the pull of India, which has played a major role in all but one of her features. Yet this film also concedes the appeal of the West and doesn’t offer simple solutions to the emotional split. It’s as intricately cross-cultural as Indo-Brit eclecticist Nitin Sawhney’s score.
Nair is a skilled filmmaker whose work can sometimes be cartoonish: She has stumbled both when romanticizing India (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love) or when avoiding it (The Perez Family). It can’t be a coincidence that her three best movies—Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and The Namesake—were all scripted by Sooni Taraporevala. Where Nair’s other films often overplay comedy and fail to establish convincing relationships between characters, the three written by Taraporevala have a subtler sense of humor and a more assured balance of themes and characters. After the story seems to have become principally Gogol’s, for example, it returns to Ashima without losing its stride. There’s a cinematic term for that: “novelistic,” and it’s usually a compliment. The Namesake doesn’t replace Lahiri’s book, of course, but it is an astute and sensitive distillation.