Film Review: The Namesake

Film: The Namesake

Director: Mira Nair

Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn, Sahira Nair

Rating: 3.5/5

Mira Nair does not cease to enchant her audiences; each time she makes a film, there is a sense of freshness in them.

The film does full justice to the Jhumpa Lahri novel it is adapted from. With The Namesake, Nair manages to document and highlight mundane tasks, blurring the line between the conscious sense of watching a film and reality.

The film draws attention to the community of Bengali expatriates in the US, particularly Boston, and the existential struggle they have with their children born in that country. It also throws light on the need and validation of self-identity.

Growing up in the US, Gogol (Kal Penn) finds himself caught amidst his family which cannot seem to let go of its roots and his yearning to fit in amongst his friends. It is through his thoughts that Mira Nair explores the lives of other characters. One of them is Ashima, played by Tabu, a passive Bengali homemaker who finds home in the US after her marriage to Ashoke (Irrfan Khan). With time, Ashima sees her children Sonia and Gogol (Sahira Nair and Kal Penn), grow into persons who are confused about their identity, those who seek the need for validation from fellow Americans.

Thorny reasons surround Kal Penn being called ‘Gogol’, named after the famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The justification given by his father does not seem to suffice; it is only in the end that his father reveals the reason. This rationale marks the change in Gogol’s life and his relationship with the world around.

Mira Nair certainly has a way with embodying Indian values and sensibilities into her films, one saw the same in films like Monsoon Wedding and Mississipi Masala; The Namesake is no different.

You can almost smell the air and feel the wind while watching the film. The vivid colours of old time Kolkata are so well brought out that you get a distinct sense of nostalgia. The detailing is simply remarkable. From the coy goodbye at the airport Ashima gives her husband to the hologram images at the airport; there is nothing that does not make sense.

The crisp portrayal of time and place is exemplary, for once, a director considers her audience smart enough to understand the point of the film. Unlike other directors who waste good time telling you where, when, what, how et al, Nair ensures you figure out and catch on without rubbing it in.

It is with great believability and conviction that each character performs. Kal Penn, who has till date, found it difficult to prove his mettle as an actor capable of doing diverse roles, marks his beginning as an actor who can render dramatic performances. Tabu, who is known to essay her characters with panache, does so in this film too. However, it is her trademark style of rendering dialogues at certain places that reminds you of Tabu and not Ashima. Having seen the film, one is just certain that no other actor could have done justice to the role besides Tabu (it is learnt that Rani Mukerjee and Konkona Sen Sharma were the initial choices).

Irrfan Khan is clearly the master, with each film, one gets to see improved and crisp acting from the man. His technique of rendering dialogues (with a slight Bengali accent, without being stereotypical), his appearance and mannerisms all speak of the research he must have put into the character.

What is remarkable in the film is the editing, direct cuts sans buildups make the story far more compelling. The editing make the film far more cohesive (a sequenced story line would have done nothing for the film). The camerawork however is nothing great, in terms of framing; however, the cinematography is enchanting. The colours seem rich and vibrant, reminding one of the ways author Anita Desai describes the environment in her books. The background score is a bit disappointing too; it does absolutely nothing for the film.

Spoilers in the film itself are plenty. At certain places the ‘what’s to come’ dialogues reveal the twist, making you lose the sense of thrill or shock. Dialogues like “Don’t go too far that I cannot see you” or the scene where Khan tells Tabu not to worry and also the  father’s gifting of the book to his son reveal too much of what is to follow, with these scenes and dialogues telling you far more than what you want to know. If you don’t realise you are at an advantage, but if you are one of those who see meaning in each word spoken you’ll figure out too soon.

The Namesake is clearly a film for a niche audience, attracting only the urban multiplex audience. Moreover, since the film draws its appreciation due to a sense of relation between the audience and the characters, audiences who cannot connect to any portion will walk out disliking it. Word of mouth publicity will enhance business but certainly, this is not a box office hit. The reason for that is the subject itself. The film could be expected to do business as any other Hollywood film does in India.

If one has read books by Jhumpa Lahiri, it is clear that intricate details play a significant role, Nair has conveyed the same through the medium of film. The Namesake is a slice of life as it is and just as it should be. You certainly cannot afford to miss this film.