Over 20 years, Mira Nair has created a canon of films you rarely regret having seen. Her newest, The Namesake, is no exception: More lovely than it is original or profound, it's another reflection on cross-culturalism, family ties and the nonviolent liberation of women from traditions that probably don't give way as easily in real life as they do in her films.
For this story, the Indian-born Nair works with the London-born, now-American Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, and who wrote the novel on which The Namesake is based.
Lahiri writes intelligent, mannered, methodical fiction that lends itself to exegesis. Nair tends to tell her stories in captivating flashes and spurts. The Namesake feels like both of them -- at once very clear, but also rewardingly unsure of itself. No wonder that its characters end up more or less unable to choose between their worlds, and perfectly happy that they don't have to.
The story begins in 1974 on a train, where Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) enjoys the ride and buries himself in a book -- this time, the collected works of Nikolai Gogol. With him in the compartment is a jovial countryman who asks if he's ever seen "this world." He means England and the U.S., not a meaningless place like India. Ashoke, content to be Indian, can only quote his grandfather: "Books are for traveling without moving an inch."
Then, the train crashes, and Ashoke's life hurries along. He's in the hospital recovering. He's in America, getting a doctorate in fiber optics. Back home for a visit, he meets a woman, Ashima (portrayed by Tabu, the Meryl Streep of India), whom his family has chosen to be his wife (if she picks him over her other choices, which include a widower with four children). They marry and have two children, the children grow up, and their son (Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar) becomes a typical American kid: smoking weed with his friends, listening to hard rock in his room, getting accepted to Yale, and doing absolutely nothing to hide his embarrassment at his parents.
He's also embarrassed by his name. It's Gogol -- as in, Gogol Ganguli -- not exactly a chick magnet. Eventually he learns about the train accident and why his father chose the name. But that brief tale -- not even a revelation, at least to us -- comes with 45 minutes still to go in The Namesake. So it's really just a moment, a sort of transitional passage that catapults the story into its final act. "We all came out of Gogol's overcoat," the father says to the son, quoting a famous epigram about the story's influence on Russian literature. "One day you will understand." (I'm not sure I do: The connection between the two stories is rather tenuous.)
The first hour of The Namesake is its most satisfying, and in scene after scene, Nair gently reinforces her anxiety about living in two (or more) worlds. The first lovemaking between the newlyweds feels authentically awkward, a counterbalance to Gogol's more erotic sex life, first with an Anglo girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett), then with an Indian-American one. To the story's extended family of Indians in America, religion seems more like custom and superstition than deep faith. Do they really believe that waving chilies over Gogol's head will ward off evil spirits? Maybe, maybe not, but you suspect they can't convince themselves to risk defying fate.
And yet, as the teen-age Gogol grumbles through a visit to his parents' homeland -- where Nair swiftly shows us the best and worst of Calcutta -- he sparks up when they take him to see the Taj Mahal. He likes to draw, and it stirs his passion for architecture. Even so, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by such history, especially if it's your own.
The last half hour or so of Nair's film races through so many life changes that its conflicts feel more contrived than lived. The Namesake could easily be much longer, giving itself time to walk instead of run to its satisfying finish line. Her film isn't quite Intro to Indian Culture, nor is it advanced studies. Think of it as an intermediate class, taught by a professor who's still trying to solve the equation. In English, with moments of Bengali, Hindi and subtitles.
Starts Fri., March 30.