Sunday, March 18, 2007

What's in a Name?

I may not be an Indian immigrant, or an immigrant at all, but the story of the Ganguli family penetrated me beyond superficial means. I'm still feeling the emotional tug of The Namesake a day later, and I'm sure when I talk about it in weeks to come, I'll feel that tug again. It is one of those movies that fully reminds me why I love movies so much.

The Namesake tells the story of Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol Ganguli. It begins in 1974 Calcutta where Ashoke is traveling by train to see his grandfather. Tragedy befalls him, setting Ashoke on a course of events that will bring him to marry Ashima, move with her to New York, and raise two children there. As the children grow, the story shifts to Gogol, their oldest son, and his life as an Indian-American attempting to assimilate into American culture.

Not once did I feel like I was watching actors playing parts. I experienced a complete suspension of disbelief and felt completely engrossed in the story of the Gangulis. Indian actress Tabu's portrayal of Ashima, the matriarch of the family, fixated me more than any other. I cried with her and laughed with her as she found her place as an Bengali woman living in the United States. Her reactions were appropriately subtle and stark when necessary. She radiated with a certain loneliness in parts of the movie that honestly brought a tear to my eye almost every time she was on screen. And, of course, when talking about acting, I have to talk about Kal Penn.

The first movie I ever saw Kal Penn in was National Lampoon's Van Wilder in which he played the ever-attentive assistant to Van. The second movie I saw him in was actually his first film--a short produced at AFI about an Indian family stranded out in the desert. It was this film that made me worry less about his ability to take on a serious role. And just so you know, he doesn't disappoint. Penn plays Nikhil "Gogol" Ganguli with grace. It's wonderful to watch him grow from a teenager who wants nothing do with his Indian roots to a young architect trying to find himself when he's battling the traditions of his parents and the allure of American modernity. Gogol's disconnection and eventual acceptance of his family and culture is absolutely profound.

Though the acting is what carries the film, I cannot forget the overall look. If you haven't seen any of Mira Nair's work, you should. With a strong balance between India and New York, she has such an eye for beauty in everything from people to nature to architecture. When the family travels to see the Taj Mahal, I felt the impact of its importance, and I longed to be standing there with them taking in such a magnificent sight. A simple fall day in the suburbs of New York made me feel warm all over for days spent playing in the yard with my friends when I was little.

I haven't read the book, but Sooni Taraporevala's script is rewarding and a great commentary on how we must all find ourselves. The Namesake is packed full of story spanning 30 years, so it doesn't dig deep into any one character and the jumps in time can be a little jarring. Overall, though, the story is a satisfying epic about the evolution of a family through love, grief, and acceptance.


Stephanie said...

I've read the book, and when I heard there was a movie to be made based on the book, I was skeptical. The book is fantastic!

I've never seen anything by Mira Nair, but I'm definitely willing to give this a chance - moreso than before I read your review.

k8 said...

Stupid people who live in stupid LA and can get movies first! :) It hasn't come out here yet, but as soon as it does I will be there with bells on!!! Can't wait!

I think the only movie I've ever seen Kal Penn in was Harold & Kumar. But from previews alone, I can tell there's more to his talent than "pot" humour!