The Namesake is one of those under-the-radar cinematic gems that too often dart in and out of theaters with little more than a smattering of buzz and even less box-office business. Fortunately, the film's release on DVD gives audiences another opportunity to discover this modest, poignant tale of an immigrant's journey. Director Mira Nair looks at two generations of an Indian American family to explore the ever-slippery divide between cultural identity and assimilation, but the story is hardly polemical. Instead, she gives us complex, richly drawn characters who earn our interest and empathy.
Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake begins in 1977 Calcutta and the arranged marriage between two young people who scarcely know one another. Ashoke Gangali (Irfan Khan, A Mighty Heart) is quiet and scholarly; his betrothed, Ashima (Tabu), is beautiful and prepared to move with Ashoke to the adventurous new world of the United States. Once the couple arrives in snowy New York, however, Ashima learns the harsh realities of being a cultural outsider with a husband who is always away at work. Ashima and Ashoke are virtual strangers to each other, but they persevere through patience and sensitivity, and a loving bond develops over time.
Ashima gives birth to a boy. The parents have a quick decision to make. In their native India, an infant is sometimes not named until a few years after birth, but the New York hospital won't discharge mother and child without a name on the birth certificate. Ashoke has a sudden inspiration. A life-changing experience earlier in Ashoke's life is inexorably linked with a short story he was reading at the time, "The Overcoat" by 19th century Russian writer Nicolai Gogol. The Gangalis name their son "Gogol" for purposes of the birth certificate, with the understanding that his eventual "good" name will be Nikhil.
Alas, the more quirky name takes hold. Gogol grows up to be an intelligent, brooding and thoroughly Americanized young man who loathes the name he has been given. That dislike only worsens when he learns that Nicolai Gogol, like any good Russian writer of that period, was paranoid and prone to depression.
Gogol the son chalks up the unfortunate name choice as just another indignity foisted upon him by the Bengali parents he views as hopelessly old-fashioned. Ignoring the wishes of his family, Gogol romances the rich, pretty and decidedly WASPy Maxime Ratliff (Jacinda Barrett), whom he met at college.
Incorporating two generations of a family and all the births, deaths, marriages and divorces that come with them, The Namesake has the depth and scope of a good novel. Screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala occasionally strains to shoehorn in a bit too much, particularly in a clumsily handled subplot involving Gogol's marriage, but the characters pulsate with all the ambivalence of life.
It helps, too, that director Nair has such strong actors at her disposal. Khan and Tabu, both of whom are Bollywood superstars not well-known to western audiences, turn in delicately rendered performances. And Kal Penn, best-known as a scheming stoner in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, captures the vagaries of a young man caught trying to make sense of the shame and reverence he feels about his heritage.
Nair, whose credits include 2001's Monsoon Wedding and 2004's Vanity Fair, is sensitive to letting the characters evolve along to the rhythms of life. There are no easy epiphanies or answers in The Namesake. The filmmaker lets the characters breathe (and occasionally stumble) without judgment or undue manipulation. Such expansiveness occasionally works to the film's detriment. It is leisurely paced, perhaps to the point of tedium in a few spots.
Early on in the movie, Ashima slips her feet into the shoes of her husband-to-be, a lovely moment that is later repeated by another character. It is that eagerness to experience the world from a different perspective that gives The Namesake a lasting emotional resonance.
As is often the case with Fox DVD releases, the screener provided for review does not represent final product. While the DVD is in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, its picture quality can't be fairly judged. Overall, colors are vibrant and details are sharp, but there is slight grain in lower lit scenes and pixilation in at least one scene. Presumably, such glitches won't be in the final disc.
Same applies for the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Spanish 2.0 Surround mixes. Subtitles, incidentally, are available in English, Spanish and French.
Mira Nair provides an informative and interesting commentary. She explains that the movie was inspired by the personal experience of her grieving the loss of a loved one. It's a kick to learn that Nair included a scene of Kal Penn smoking pot as homage to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
In Anatomy of The Namesake: A Class at Columbia University's Graduate Film School (32:08), Nair and producer Lydia Dean Pilcher discuss aspects of the filmmaking with film students. Serious cineastes will find it interesting enough to overlook the numerous cutaways of class members.
Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Kal Penn (3:37) is self-explanatory. Penn is an articulate and loquacious interviewee.
Nair says in her commentary that The Namesake is "a film of still photographs." To illustrate that point, a fascinating featurette titled Photography as Inspiration (7:54) juxtaposes scenes from The Namesake with the still photographs that helped inspire them. In a similar vein, Kolkata Love Poem (3:58) is a montage of images (much of it taken from the movie) showcasing Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital of West Bengal.
Three deleted scenes have an aggregate length of three minutes, two seconds and can be viewed separately or via the "play all" function. Commentary by Mira Nair is optional. It is not essential viewing.
Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer and trailers for In America, Water, The Flying Scotsman and Blind Dating.
The Namesake is an occasionally untidy film, but it possesses the breadth and expansiveness of a good novel. Mira Nair, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala and a talented cast (especially Irfan Khan and Tabu) have fashioned a strong generational story anchored by absorbing characters.