Born in a Cossack village in 1809, Russian author Nikolai Gogol is regarded as a literary genius who suffered severe bouts of melancholy during much of his lonely life. Whether he was insane remains open for academic debate, but no one can dispute his influence on Russian literature. The realist author spent most of his life abroad and futilely sought religious fulfillment in his latter years before dying at the age of 41. Gogol is quite effectively used as a central metaphor in director Mira Nair's The Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling 2003 novel of the same name.
Spanning some thirty years, the film presents cultural contrasts and adept character study of two generations of a Bengali family that bridges the cluttered streets of Calcutta and Manhattan. Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) habitually reads from his favorite writer Gogol on the train and miraculously is the sole survivor of a horrific wreck when rescue workers spot pages ripped from his book. After a traditional arranged marriage with stunningly beautiful Ashima (Tabu), Ashoke takes his bride to live in a low rent flat in Manhattan.
Shy and tentative, Ashima finds life in America strange and lonely without the comfortable company of family. Scenes of awkward adjustment follow, the most humorous showing Ashima sprinkling curry powder on her Rice Krispies. She does marvel at American conveniences, writing back home about being able to cook all day with gas available around the clock. Without clobbering the viewer, Nair allows us to experience her difficulties assimilating to the American lifestyle.
When Ashima gives birth to a baby boy, the couple discovers that they must name their newborn son immediately for a legal birth certificate and hospital release, contrary to Indian custom where a proper name may not be created for several years. They decide on a "pet" name of Gogol, figuring that the "good" name can come later. However, the young boy rejects the name of Nikhil in favor of his "pet" name on his first day of school, making Gogol his "good" name—an early indication of how this character will be searching for his identity throughout the film.
Ashima continues to pine for India, but Asoke insists that their children will have many more opportunities in America. So they remain and upgrade their living quarters to the suburbs, but later find their teenaged son and daughter typically estranged from their parents and Bengali roots. An extended family trip back to Calcutta has mixed results—Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair) are taken back by the abject poverty and the religious rituals, but the entire family is awed by the Taj Mahal. Gogol even decides on the spot to study architecture at Yale that coming Fall. Cross cultural love affairs contrast with a contemporary Bengali relationship, as the major characters struggle to find ways to live in both worlds as the film unfolds.
Standing out are the acting performances of both Tabu and Kal Penn. Tabu's nuanced performance subtly demonstrates her sensitivity to her family and situation. Although disturbed by her children's adolescent rebellion, she patiently asserts herself quietly, confident that things will work out in the long term. She learns to cope with loneliness, realizing that her husband has been training her to do so through some of the work assignments he's accepted over the years. Her silences and eyes communicate all that is necessary during family conflicts and crises—the steadfast rock upon which the film stands to bridge a successful resolution between American and Bengali life.
Contrasting with Tabu's steady calm temperament, is Penn's overtly expressive acting. Best known for his stoner role in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Penn's first scenes require little more than a slightly more serious reprise with the disgruntled high school graduate smoking pot and grousing overtly about the horrible name that he's been sentenced with. Penn is required to explore a wide range of emotions—from tenderness, to disillusionment, to extreme grief—and demonstrates that he's fully capable of carrying a dramatic film.
Although the film tends to drift off into tangents and lose its central thread in the details, The Namesake is well worth watching for the acting and for some heartfelt tearjerker moments that allow us to experience the utter loneliness that the central characters inevitably feel. An extra bonus is the fine location cinematography that grants us a small window into contemporary Calcutta. It's a worthy film added to Nair's resume—much closer to the work of Satyajit Ray in theme than Nair's popular lighthearted Monsoon Wedding.