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In her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, director Mira Nair displayed an ability to translate the intricacies of South Asian familial conflict into high cinematic drama. But the film transcended its cultural context by focusing on the palpable emotions of real characters dealing with real issues. While under the pressures of preparing for a marriage ceremony, the characters of Monsoon Wedding overcame infidelity, child abuse and vast generational difference to keep their family together.
Six years later Nair has delivered The Namesake, a film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, and once again her film tackles issues of love and difference within a modern Bengali-Indian family. Yet whereas the former took place over a single weekend in India, The Namesake is a sprawling tale that spans generations and continents; it is a more complex story, but at the same time holds far less obvious conflict. Taking its cues from Jhumpa Lahiri's prose, the real drama lies in what is left unsaid.
With the focus drawn away from dialogue, much of the film's heavy lifting is left to the actors, who uniformly answer the call. Bollywood stars Irfan Khan and Tabu play Ashoke and Ashima, a young Indian couple who move to America following an arranged marriage in the mid-70's. They struggle not only with a new environment and culture, but also in understanding each other. Khan is underused, but he powerfully conveys suppressed passion in the delivery of every mumbled line. Similarly, Tabu floats through entire scenes without a hint of emotion, then with just the faintest of smiles or moistness in the eyes she sends sparks through the screen. In one particular scene, as Ashoke asks his wife why she chose him amongst all the suitors who came for her hand, and in her response we are convinced of Ashima's deep love simply through her fluid body language and the playful inflection in her voice.
Nair wisely develops the story of the parents before introducing their children, Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). In this way Nair ensures that sympathies are torn throughout the film, so that we never really side with either the young or the old. Gogol (named after the Russian author) lives in a completely separate universe from his parents, or at least so it would seem. Smoking pot with his friends after graduation, sleeping with a beautiful young girl named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and changing his name to Nick - he appears destined to assimilate into a culture far removed from that of his father and mother. Kal Penn channels the stoner and carefree attitude of his previous roles into a substantial portrait of a struggling young man caught between two worlds - a character with whom Penn must have felt strong empathy.
Gogol tries his hardest to leave his home in the past, but after tragedy strikes he is forced to reexamine his roots, ultimately taking an interest in his unorthodox name, and in the process grows closer to his father. He also decides to leave Maxine and pursue a Bengali girl who is the daughter of a family friend. After a cup of coffee and some passionate cooking they are whisked into the throws of marriage.
On their wedding night, in a room filled with reds and to music swelling with sitars and tablas, Gogol and Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) reenact typical scenes from Bollywood films as they playful tease one another. What Nair deftly captures is the sense of romantic role-playing that defines this union. These two aren't just in love with each other; they are in love with the idea of each other. And for that reason they will eventually fail as a couple.
Within the romance of Gogol and Moushumi, Nair presents a challenge to typical depictions of romance in Bollywood film, with Moushumi later saying, "maybe it's not enough that we're Bengali." The director wants us to reject idealized notions of love, and understand the difficult struggle that relationships can be regardless of ethnicity or culture. The film is in many ways about connecting with something outside of one's comfort zone - whether it be a country, a person or a novel - yet it is with this theme that the film has its greatest difficulties. Nair concludes Gogol's journey of complicated personal identification, which is at the heart of The Namesake's story, in a confusing manner. As the drama unfolds we are meant to understand that self-definition is a process both independent and dependent on culture, but Nair's film struggles to define how one can actually overcome cultural barriers.
Other than the fact that they come from different cultures (and that Gogol was unwilling to try), it is unclear why Gogol's relationship with Maxine fails. This ambiguity becomes more troubling when we realize she is the only major non-Indian character in the entire film, and that Gogol's only other love interest, Moushumi, seems to fail him primarily because she spent so many years in France and England courting men. Ashoke tells his son to grab a pillow and travel the world, but the possibility of his voyage being anything more than a vacation seems slim.
The Namesake doesn't want much more than for us to go home and hug our parents - to be thankful for the sacrifices they made to bring us up in this world. But in the process of conveying that sentiment, which it does wonderfully, it also presents a confusing and problematic view of cultural assimilation. None of the major characters make any strong connections with people outside of their culture; in fact the idealized relationship is that of the parents - one that was arranged by Indian families. At the very end Ashima is back in India, dreaming of her lost love and singing her song as if she never left. In her attempt to please everyone, Nair, despite directing another pleasantly heartwarming film, ultimately ends up saying very little with any sense of completion. SEE ALSO: www.foxsearchlight.com/thenamesake
Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer pursuing self-expression in all its forms. This includes the occasional contribution to LAS as well as writing blogs, essays, short stories, an unpublished novel and some screenplays. He also creates horribly amateur music with his brother Yusuf.
See other articles by Imran Siddiquee.
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