Dir: Mira Nair. USA. 2006. 122mins
Mira Nair's best films have shown an optimism aboutlife and an affection for the flaws and failings of her characters, and shebrings a similar sense of compassion to TheNamesake, her adaptation of the novel by Pulitzer prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri. A sweeping saga ofculture clashes and the tensions between the generations, it steers a confidentcourse through a mass of incident, staying the right side of excessivesentimentality and superficiality to emerge as a truly warm-hearted portrait ofan Indian/America family and its many travails.
Commercial returns shouldeasily match those achieved by MonsoonWedding (2001), while the American setting and partial American cast shouldonly enhance its status in the US as a sturdy arthouseprospect for older, sophisticated audiences.
Married in Calcutta duringthe late 1970s, Ashoke Ganguli(Khan) and his new bride Ashima (Tabu)immediately embark on a new life in New York. Lonely and removed fromeverything she considers familiar, Ashima strugglesto feel at home. But it is their son Gogol (Penn) whofaces the bigger engagement with the tension between tradition and modernity,his roots in Indian culture and his instinct to reject his family'sexpectations and fully embrace his future as an American.
As the years pass, so Gogol avoids an arranged marriage and gradually drifts awayfrom the family home as he finds romance with Max (Barrett) and spends his timewith her wealthy white family. Events within his own family ultimately forcehim to reconsider his actions and gain a greater understanding of his parents'values and his cultural heritage.
Nair was surprisingly heavyhanded in her approach to the screen version of the Thackeray classic Vanity Fair (2004), but here she seemsmuch more at ease with a literary adaptation that has some of the sweep of agreat read without becoming a mere record of hatches, matches and dispatches.
An admirer of Satyajit Ray, she is clearly also a film-maker in thetradition of Jean Renoir, never judging her characters but merely gathering theminto a warm embrace and trying to make us understand that they all have theirreasons for what they do. Ashoke has the wisdom toknow that in time his son will understand not only the reasons for his odd namebut why his father came to New York. Ashima is aloyal wife, but we also gain a sense of her loneliness and what she hassacrificed for her family.
The one character who is rather poorly treated is that of Max, whose blitheinsensitivity towards the Ganguli family providessome easy laughs but does not seem entirely in keeping with such an educated,caring woman.
Best known for his comicescapades in Van Wilder: Party Liaison(2002) and Harold AndKumar (2004), Kal Penn rises to the challenge ofhis most demanding dramatic role yet. He makes a convincing journey fromfrustrated, rebellious adolescent to mature, thoughtful adult. His performanceis the solid backbone of an appealing and civilised production.
Mirabai Films Inc
Lydia Dean Pilcher
Sooni Taraporevala from thenovel by Jhumpa Lahiri
Allyson C Johnson