Idol Chatter

Gogol Ganguli. That’s the name Ashoke and Ashima fill out in the forms for their newborn when a letter from their grandmother–that was supposed to inform the Gangulis of their newborn’s name, as per the Bengali tradition of the elders choosing a “good name” for the baby–doesn’t arrive in time.

Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” tells us Gogol’s story–why Ashoke chose a Russian author’s name for his son, why Gogol struggles with it, and how he comes to accept it. Interwoven in Gogol’s struggle with his name is the story of the Ganguli family.

In the Hindu tradition, the namkaran, or naming ceremony, is the first important ritual for a baby. Besides giving a child an identity, the name is supposed to be the root of the child’s destiny. Gogol is nothing like the traditional Sanskrit names that often draw upon Hindu mythology for their meanings. But Gogol’s journey to find out what his name means to him is full of the questions we often ask ourselves, making “The Namesake” a compelling watch.

The film’s eloquence comes from its nuanced interpretation of Gogol and his family’s struggle as Indian-Americans. It’s not merely about a battle between the East and West, a clash of Indian traditions and American explorations. It’s about finding a balance in between both those worlds.

Above all, it’s a beautiful portrait of a family, a lyrical story that Nair paints with vivid montages of seminal moments in the Gangulis’ lives. Drawing on her experience of growing up in Calcutta and love for Satyajit Ray films, Nair not only recreates an older Bengali era, she also conveys the deep bond between Ashoke and Ashima that grows from a tentative beginning to an unspoken understanding.

At the same time Nair, who counts New York City as one of her homes, portrays the youthful exuberance of Gogol’s Manhattan exploits with the insight and ease of a New Yorker. Just as the metaphor of the bridges in the movie, “The Namesake” is about bridging the gap.

It begins with an arranged marriage between Ashoke and Ashima. Bollywood stars Irrfan Khan and Tabu bring the couple’s understated romance to life. As always, Khan is masterful in his interpretation of the somewhat eccentric professor Ashoke. Tabu’s take on Ashima’s life as a new bride in a new country to her journey back is heartfelt.

Then, there’s Gogol, played with charm by Kal Penn (known more for his comic role of Kumar in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”). As a child, Gogol loves the name his father gave him, preferring it to his formal name Nikhil. But as a gangly teenager growing into a suave architect, he starts to dislike it. His initial discomfort comes from the discovery of his namesake Russian author’s idiosyncrasies. Later he wants to go by his formal name, Nikhil, to stake out his own identity outside of his father’s shadow.

Just as he struggles with his name, Gogol wrestles with the worlds inside and outside his parents’ home. But when tragedy strikes the family, he begins on a journey of rediscovering his roots. But the journey goes much beyond a simple reclaiming of Gogol’s cultural heritage, an oft-explored movie theme. It’s a deeper attempt to understand where one comes from, and that’s what makes “The Namesake” a movie to be seen.

–Aparita Bhandari

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