Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's bestselling novel The Namesake is fairly true to the book; Nair's eye brings vividly to life the flavors and colors splashed through Lahiri's pages. The result a lovely film with all the same strengths - and all the same weaknesses - as the novel it adapts.
Ashima's (Tabu) marriage to Ashok Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is arranged by her parents in her home city of Calcutta; immediately after the marriage she is whisked to New York, where her new husband is a graduate student, and begins to adjust to the new and different life she will lead in America. Their first child is a son, and they name him Gogol, after the Russian author, who (for a variety of reasons) is very close to Ashok's heart. Gogol (Kal Penn) grows into a sullen teenager and eventually a discontented young man, disconnected from his Indian roots but also unmoored in the urban and urbane company he keeps. As he moves through a series of romantic relationships and weathers some family tragedy, Gogol's identity shifts and reforms, and in time he reaches an understanding of the gifts his parents have given him in his Bengali heritage, his name, and his autonomy.
The Namesake's greatest strength is that it is a real, uncaricatured story; it avoids the trap of lapsing into cliche, of recycling the tired themes of the strained arranged marriage, the overbearing immigrant parents, the second generation's rebellion. Instead, Ashima and Irfan's marriage grows from its formal beginning into genuine, moving tenderness; while Ashima laments the brash, American mannerisms of her children she and Irfan are committed to letting them have their own choices and freedoms; and Gogol's distance from his parents is not so much a reaction against being Indian as it is a general malaise. His identity crisis is focused through his particular cultural lens, but his drifting of purpose perhaps resonates universally.
Because The Namesake is so much about what goes on inside its character's heads - Ashima's and Gogol's in particular - it would fail without excellent performances from its actors, and Mira Nair gets what she needs from her talented cast. Tabu and Irfan Khan are particularly outstanding, communicating volumes even with very little dialogue; young Kal Penn stands up well also, with a handful of superb scenes that outweigh his few sullen teenager moments. Indeed, Gogol's occasional shallowness is not really Kal Penn's fault. One irritating aspect I recall from the novel is that Gogol is not always an interesting enough character to have a whole book about him; this weakness is not corrected in the film. As with the novel, I am left wishing for more about Ashima and less about Gogol. Still, there is enough substance in Gogol's arc to maintain the focus, even if the women in his life are thinly-drawn tokens. And the film's eye never drifts too far from Ashima, navigating the vast confusion of American suburbia.
Like the novel, The Namesake is episodic, sometimes disorientingly so, as the viewer is jerked through the passage of time, often with no hint of what transpired in the interstitial years; one moment Gogol is a high-school graduate headed to Yale; the next, he is a young architect living in a swanky apartment in New York with a rich, white girlfriend. In fact the film omits some episodes in which the novel touched down, leaving the film to feel even more compressed and speedy at times. But these are minor complaints, small flaws in a film that was on the whole lovely, sweet, and fairly satisfying.