“The Namesake” is a true treasure. It is a film that honours long-established convention and meaning by maintaining its own traditional approach. All too often, filmmakers take sides when telling a story about a culture taken out of context. Either the old is just plain too old for its own good or the new is entirely empty. Director Mira Nair begins this story of one family’s history by drawing her own conclusions but allows the film to learn the error of its ways at the same pace as its characters. The Ganguli family must learn to meet each other in the middle of its own extremes. Once there, they must learn to breathe soft and slow to allow both sides to hear each other and learn from what they are hearing. By finding a similar breathing pattern to establish its pacing, “The Namesake” is able to criticize and question the Americanization of other cultures while never losing focus on what matters, the experience and heart of the Ganguli family.
Giving history its due, “The Namesake” opens in Calcutta. A young girl by the name of Ashima (played by Tabu) returns home from singing lessons to find a male suitor waiting to ask for her hand in marriage. She does not run from what is expected of her nor does she go towards it blindly and obediently. Instead, she approaches with caution and an open mind. Before she even meets Ashoke (Irfan Khan), she is drawn to the exotic possibilities he can offer her when she finds his American shoes by the door. She slips the shoes on, seemingly trying to feel what kind of man wears these shoes and what kind of weight wears them down. It is a simple moment, one of many to follow, that both gives the film its charm and connects Ashima and Ashoke to each other. Theirs is a marriage arranged in the most traditional sense yet a great love grows from this beginning. The newlyweds travel to New York to start their life together while getting to know both each other and their new surroundings. The tenderness of their relationship is a moving testament to the importance of listening and comprehension.
The wide spectrum of colour that runs rampant through Calcutta is reduced to nothing in New York. The city is covered in snow and only the drab concrete manages to poke through. Before long, Ashoke and Ashima have their first of two children, Gogol (Kal Penn). With his birth, the central conflict is also born. As Gogol grows older, he grows further away from his heritage but more importantly, he grows further away from his parents. All families face these kinds of challenges. In the case of the Ganguli family, it is easy for the children to rebel against their cultural backgrounds as it is the most obvious target that will certainly hurt their parents. The parents had to adjust to the American way of life while the children were born and raised within it. It is difficult to reconcile the differences, which leads to the feeling that they are barely a family at times.
“The Namesake” is about healing and understanding. It does not focus on any one family member more than any other but rather on their shared similar experiences of happiness and loss. And though its visual basis is specific, its messages are much more universal. Never letting go of the past will never allow you to see your future. Still, refusing to acknowledge the past will leave your future just as hollow. If you’re not too stubborn though and you realize that everything that comes before you makes you who you are today and who you can be tomorrow, then you will learn to resolve both past and future to enjoy your present and the family you are fortunate to have surround you.
Review by Joseph Bélanger