Sooni Taraporevala (Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri)
Irfan Khan, Ruma Guha Thakurta, Tabu, Kal Penn, Sahira Nair, Zuleikha Robinson, Glenne Headly, Daniel Gerroll, Jacinda Barrett
PG-13 (for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language)
In an exploration of the conflict between Indian and American cultures, The Namesake is saved almost entirely by its strong cast and occasional bits of insight.
The central theme of the film revolves around Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn), an American-born College student of Indian descent who detests his given name and seeks to change it to blend in better with his American friends and family. It’s sometimes hard to follow where the story is going, but there are quite a few flashback sequences where Gogol’s father Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and his mother Ashima (Tabu) remember the past and express to him why his name is so important.
Because of the color of his skin, Gogol feels he must fight to fit in and a significant portion of the film is devoted to his interactions with friends, his girlfriend, and her family. Meanwhile, we also see how Ashoke had to adapt to life in the United States, following a similar path of struggling to fit in while Ashima struggled to maintain her strong connection with her family, their traditions and the past.
Each member of the Ganguli family looks at life differently and Mira Nair directs them all with a passion for the film that is hard to question, but is sluggish and clunky. This is not to fault the script by Sooni Taraporevala based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. The screenplay itself does a decent job exploring the cultural differences between the characters as well as the environments in which they are set.
Penn’s performance is a mixed bag. There are segments where he shows a mastery of restraint and emotional discovery while others are a touch hammy. Not surprisingly, it’s his seasons dealing with the Indian culture as presented by his father and mother where he excels and the ones set in American societal circles that are over-accentuated. This could be a fault of Nair’s direction, wanting to make the fish out of water elements more evident instead of allowing them to flow naturally.
Looking at Penn’s on-screen father, you would see a more generous and balanced performance. Khan, who has significant more experience in the field of acting than his young filmic son, understands how to temper each of his scenes to fit dramatically and thematically with the story.
But the real talent of this film is Tabu. Her performance as the emotionally conflicted mother is a fine display of meter, control and emotional range. Conveying joy, sorrow and longing with the dignity of a master thespian, Tabu gives an amazingly deep performance that makes her the emotional center of the film. She is the tie that binds father, son and tradition together and she does so with aplomb.
If there is no other reason to see the film (other than the performances of Tabu and Kahn), it is to see the cultural details of the people of India. The Namesake has a few surprising elements, but it’s the pursuit of a careful equilibrium between personal identity and the connection to one’s family and its past that take center stage in the film, even if it isn’t done entirely successfully.
September 25, 2008