The Namesake, DIR: Mira Nair (Limited release, Opens March 9)
In the book of Hollywood how-to’s, prostheses and makeup are the standard solution for young actors playing a character into middle age. (Jake Gyllenhaal’s unfortunate mustache in Brokeback Mountain comes to mind.) In Mira Nair’s new film The Namesake, Kal Penn eschews the faux beer belly for a far more elegant, and remarkably effective, technique. He simply adjusts his posture.
As the teenage Gogol Ganguli, he slouches; as the adult Nikhil (note the name change), he stands up straight. As a pot-smoking, indignant 17-year-old he’s credible, but Penn made his name with the stoner hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The pleasant surprise of The Namesake is that Penn is equally believable as a yuppie architect.
Meanwhile, Real World London alumna Jacinda Barrett, playing his girlfriend Maxine, continues her bewildering but effective campaign, begun with the forgettable 2006 Zach Braff vehicle The Last Kiss, to become America’s most annoying actress. (On the way to meet Nikhil’s parents, she insists on stopping at a gourmet grocery: “Everyone loves truffles!”) With her oblivious, self-important characters, Barrett has invented a new class of movement: she flits, but she flits obtusely. But no matter. Barrett does her flitting and mercifully disappears; her character’s solely a device to make Nikhil stop dating Americans and find, as his parents have always hoped, a good Bengali bride. Unfortunately, the wife doesn’t work out either, and he ends up back where he started: looking not so much for someone to love as for someone to be.
Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel, The Namesake follows the Ganguli family over two generations. It begins in Calcutta with an arranged marriage—Ashoke is a doctoral student, Ashima shy but intelligent and curious—and follows the young couple to New York and then to the suburbs, where they raise two children, all the while yearning for India. They name their son for Ashoke’s favorite author, Nikolai Gogol, who also spent his adulthood outside his homeland. Following Bengali tradition, they mean to give him a “proper” name as well, but never get around to it. Only when Gogol enrolls at Yale does he rename himself “Nikhil,” a name with two advantages: it does not refer to a long-dead eccentric, and can be Americanized as “Nick.”
Like the novel, the film tells the parallel stories of Gogol’s coming of age and his parents’ (especially his mother’s) painful exile. Typically, a coming-of-age story narrates progress, while a story of exile remains mired in unyielding nostalgia. The trick of the novel, vaguely echoed in the film, is to turn those conventions around. Seeking identity in his name, his rock records, his architecture textbooks, his girlfriends, Gogol is no closer to self-realization at 30 than he was at 17. Meanwhile, his parents’ ordinary triumphs have piled up unnoticed. In the novel’s final pages Lahiri writes:
All those trips to Calcutta he’d once resented—how could they have been enough? They were not enough. Gogol knows now that his parents had lived their lives in America in spite of what was missing, with a stamina he fears he does not possess himself.
Apart from the usual excisions required of screen adaptation (Gogol’s years at Yale, a major segment of the novel, are mentioned in the film only briefly), Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay mostly hews to the novel’s chronological structure. (In fact the adaptation’s one major departure makes a serious misstep; by turning the accident that provides the novel’s compelling introduction into a flashback years later, the film reduces the episode to an emotionally manipulative aside.) In their close attention to Lahiri’s plot, however, Taraporevala and Nair (who also collaborated on 1991’s Mississippi Masala) mistook their source’s attractive details for its deeper accomplishment.
The novel only seems linear; in fact it works by accretion. As in her short stories, Lahiri limits her narrative possibilities in order to exploit them. The alchemy of the novel is thus, as one reviewer put it, to “spin gold out of the straw of ordinary lives.” Of course, films are free to spin something new out of their sources’ straw. But Nair has not only failed to recreate Lahiri’s alchemy; she has also offered no new alchemy of her own. She gives us ordinary lives, hold the gold.
In the film, the equivalent of Gogol’s quiet epiphany—“that his parents had lived their lives in America in spite of what was missing”—is transferred to his mother. On learning that her husband has suddenly died, the heretofore reserved Ashima (played by the Indian actress Tabu) is utterly bereft. In the middle of the night, she runs outside and helplessly surveys the lawn, the house, the home, that she and her husband had made. It is the movie’s most moving scene, and an almost disarmingly effective translation of Lahiri’s prose to film. But its achievement comes too easily, by exploiting sentiment. Nair has not tried, or anyway has not succeeded, at the more difficult work that is Lahiri’s trademark: calm attention to detail in the service of quiet realizations, a muted emotional punch. Dispassionate but not without passion, Lahiri’s novel said: Change yourself. Nair’s film, for all its color, says only: We are who we are.
M ira Nair suffers from a shortcoming that less talented filmmakers would love to have: her distinctive aesthetic vision far exceeds her storytelling capacity, and yet the films she seems to want to make are utterly dependent upon story. Frame by frame, her films are lush and seductive, and she refuses to draw obvious visual contrasts. There are gray days in Calcutta as well as New York. The Gangulis’ trips to India are rich with pinks, purples, and greens, but their American suburb is just as bright with its crisp apple reds and school-bus yellows. Similarly Nair makes Nikhil’s Bengali wife (played by Zuleikha Robertson) about as obnoxious as his American girlfriend. If this attention to balance has a point, it’s rather basic: neither India nor the United States is perfect; neither Indians nor Americans have a monopoly on hurt. The Namesake does not trade in happy endings, but it nevertheless falls short of exploring Indian-American life in all its everyday complexity.
It’s no surprise that Nair misses the spark in ordinary lives since she has heretofore had the same trouble with extraordinary ones. Mississippi Masala took a superficially provocative story—the daughter of a Ugandan-Indian lawyer, now living in Mississippi and cleaning bathrooms, falls in love with an African-American carpet cleaner—and assumed that its surfaces would sufficiently provoke. They do not. Denzel Washington and references to curry aside, Mississippi Masala is as bland and comforting a romance as a Lifetime movie. The 2001 hit Monsoon Wedding knit together storylines of incest, adultery, and class snobbery without making any of them compelling.
Nair’s 2004 adaptation of Vanity Fair was her grandest film of all, complete with an epic scene at Waterloo, but ultimately it too collapsed into its own surfaces. Nair and leading lady Reese Witherspoon were criticized for turning Becky Sharp into a 21st-century feminist hero. The problem was not that Nair tried to update her source but that she failed to do justice to her source’s spirit. “She has missed the universals in Thackeray,” wrote Salon’s Charles Taylor, “because she is hung up on what’s left out of his specifics.” She has missed the universals in Lahiri, too, because she is hung up on what is in her specifics. Jhumpa Lahiri is our most capable chronicler of Indian-American life but only by way of being one of our most talented storytellers—not unlike John Updike vis-à-vis middle America. Mira Nair is not without her own gifts, but still I wonder what a more visionary filmmaker could have made of Lahiri’s quietly moving novel.
SARA MAYEUX is a student of 20th-century history and sometime writer who lives in Brooklyn.