The Namesake is only two hours long, but when the credits roll it seems like you’ve been watching it for at least two and a half. Why? Because, well, not much happens.
Not that the movie isn’t good or well-made or even enjoyable. On the whole, it’s worth seeing, and for the most part it works, but it suffers the burden of trying too hard. The Namesake wants to be universal as well as specific, American as well as Indian (or Indian as well as American, I?m still not absolutely sure which one), a story of cultures as well as a story of people. The end result is hit-or-miss, but one leaves the theater feeling that, well, at least they tried.
Although the story centers on a young Indian-American named Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn, better known for movies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Van Wilder), what it’s really about is family and culture. Gogol’s father, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), leaves India after surviving a train crash, then goes back to India after a few years to get married and return to the United States with his new wife Ashima (Bollywood actress Tabu). They proceed to have two children, Gogol and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair). The film follows the family from the time of the crash until the time that Gogol is about thirty, documenting the struggles of Ashoke and Ashima to maintain their cultural heritage at the same time that their children are growing up in a radically different environment, and, later, Gogol’s search to understand his identity. The title of the film comes from its central symbol: the work of Russian author Nikolai Gogol, whose work holds such special significance for Ashoke that he names his son after him.
I was surprised and pleased by the high caliber of the acting on all fronts, especially from Kal Penn, who I had known by reputation as a performer of lowbrow comedies – though he falters at a few moments, for the most part he brings a strong performance to the role of Gogol. Sahira Nair, as well, was surprisingly good, and both Zuleikha Robinson and Jacinda Barrett are strong as Gogol’s two girlfriends at points in his life. The soul of the film, however, is the pair of Irfan Khan and Tabu, who bring a quiet and touching dignity to their respective roles as the parents of the family. Most of the film’s most powerful moments come from these two, and they are furthermore completely believable as a reserved couple who are nonetheless completely in love.
All that being said, I took issue throughout the film with Mira Nair’s direction. Nair experiments with different symbols and motifs to highlight important plot points and link together related images, and it’s interesting when it works, I suppose, but too often it crosses from interesting to gimmicky. Again, one is left with the feeling of at least she tried, but unlike the rest of the movie with this it seemed like it might have been better if she’d simply let the story go where it took her.
But that, sadly, is the film?s other great flaw: there simply isn’t much of a story, or, rather, there’s too much of one: the film covers a span of time of over thirty years, dropping into characters? lives for highlights and important events, but it simply can’t fit everything it would need to into a two-hour frame to accomplish what it wants. The film is filled with fine performances, even some very touching moments, but it is lumbering and weighty as well.
Yet, as I said earlier, it’s worth a watch, though I’d wait for the DVD on this one, especially if you don’t speak Bengali (the film is in English, but some scenes are in Bengali – Indian folks around me were laughing wildly at points spoken in the language where I was clueless as to what was the joke). Nair is a talented director, but she doesn’t handle this one as well as she could have. The individual scenes are well done and effective, but it does not hold together as a unified film.
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