Ashima (Indian superstar Tabu) pauses before entering the living room to meet her prospective bridegroom and his family. Their shoes have been left outside the door, according to the customs of her home in India. Ashima sees that inside the shoes it says “Made in the USA.” She quietly slips her foot inside, trying them on for size. This lovely moment sets the stage for a thoughtful and engrossing study of identity, assimilation, and finding the way home.
Years later, when that prospective bridegroom, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) has been her husband for decades and the father of her children, he asks why she picked him over the other candidates her parents presented to her. She smiles and says he was better than the alternatives. But we know that she, like us, is thinking back to that moment of slipping her foot in his shoe. Later in the film, Ashoke’s son Gogol (Kal Penn) will also try on his father’s shoes, and again it will mean the beginning of a journey.
In fact, there are many journeys in this story about the Ganguli family and their life in America — trains, airplanes, carts, and automobiles fill the screen. It begins with Ashoke on a train ride that has significance we will not learn until Gogol does, near the end of the film. It is not until then that he learns the meaning of his name.
Or, one of his names. In the American hospital, a nurse asks Ashima the baby’s name for the birth certificate. Ashima explains that they must wait until they hear from the maternal grandmother what the name will be. It is her responsibility to select the child’s “good name.” But the hospital needs a name right away, so it is his “pet name” of Gogol that goes onto the birth certificate.
Gogol grows up very American, a little embarrassed by his funny-sounding name and his family’s traditional customs. He is bored on his family’s trips back to India. But it is there that he decides what he will become — the Taj Mahal inspires him to study architecture. He becomes engaged to a pretty blonde whose family accepts him warmly (though introducing him as “the Indian architect”). But he comes to feel — and need to feel — a deeper connection with his heritage, though it will take a while to understand what that means.
Director Mira Nair and a superb cast tell the story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s prize-winning book beautifully. It is so spacious and epic in scope that it feels a little truncated at times, especially when there are great leaps in time. But the engrossing and multi-layered performances of Penn, Kahn, and Tabu and Nair’s luscious imagery constantly draw us in, making the story at the same time very particular and utterly universal.
Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language, sexual references and situations (including adultery), and brief nudity. Characters drink and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. There is a train accident and in the aftermath we see dead and injured people, and there are sad deaths. A strength of the movie is its sensitive and perceptive exploration of racial and cultural issues.
Families who watch this movie should talk about their own family heritage and the issues that arise in the United States from its history as a “melting pot.” Most American families have stories about efforts of family members to either be “more American” or to hold on to cultural and ethnic traditions. What made Gogol change his mind about his name? Why was his name so important? What do you think about the idea of having a “good name” and a “pet name?”
Families who enjoy this movie will want to read the book by Jhumpa Lahiri and, of course The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol. Another good book exploring the immigrant experience is Anne Tyler’s Digging to America. Families will also enjoy Nair’s other films, including Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding and Gurinder Chadha’s films Bend It Like Beckham and What’s Cooking?