- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

Many books and films in the last few years have bewailed the suffocating customs that stubbornly follow Asian immigrants to their adopted homelands in the West. These stories have been welcomed for telling a truth that’s often little known in the wider society.

That truth is not the whole truth, however. Some immigrants find comfort in the old ways that we modern Westerners would find constricting.

In “The Namesake,” the refreshing, yet flawed, saga of one Indian-American family, filmmaker Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) succeeds in offering a different view of immigrant life, making us question our assumptions about cultural superiority.

The film begins in Calcutta. Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) discusses the terms of his arranged marriage to Ashima (acclaimed Indian actress Tabu). Before she meets her future husband, Ashima tries on his shoes, which lie outside the room. It’s a small moment, but enough to make us fall in love with the charming, shy girl.

Ashima must leave India and settle with Ashoke in New York, where he works as a professor. An older relative tells Ashima: “Embrace the new. Don’t forget the old.”

The words could serve as “The Namesake’s” motto. Ashima must learn the first half of that admonition, while her children must learn the second.

The culture shock comes as soon as Ashima arrives in America. Seeing that she has jet lag, Ashoke tells Ashima to lie down while he makes her tea. She’s shocked — a husband serving a wife? “It is the American way,” he laughs.

Their tentative relationship provides the most touching moments of the film. These two barely spoke to each other back in Calcutta; now they are married, thrust together in a country of strangers. Yet, this isn’t the predictable horror story of arranged marriage. As these two young souls forge a new life, they also find love. Not that they’d admit it. As Ashima laughs when Ashoke asks why she agreed to marry him, “You want me to say ‘I love you’ like the Americans?”

That attitude is foreign to their children, who grow up thoroughly American. Their son is the namesake of the title, given the pet name of “Gogol” (Ashoke’s favorite writer) and the “good” name of Nikhil. By the time he’s a teenager (Kal Penn of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” in an unexpected dramatic role), Gogol curses the parents who named him after a depressed Russian writer and becomes Nick when he leaves the nest to make his way as an architect.

The two names serve as a metaphor for Gogol’s divided personality. Like many second-generation immigrants, he wants no part of his parents’ old-fashioned customs. But after his relationship with a rich WASP (Jacinda Barrett, “The Last Kiss”) falters when she can’t relate to his family, he reconsiders. His parents would love to see him marry Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson, “Rome’s” Gaia), a fellow Bengali. But although she’s smart and sexy, Gogol wonders if a shared culture is enough on which to build a marriage.

In adapting Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala has made Ashoke and Ashima much more engaging than the young man of “The Namesake’s” title. As a result, the end of the film, when the focus shifts to his story, falls flat.

The Indian-born, Harvard-educated Miss Nair has filled “The Namesake” with the beauty of Indian culture, which Ashoke and Ashima bring with them to America. Although narratively untidy, this immigrant tale is a much-needed addition to a genre that sometimes suffers from as much cultural blindness as the namesake of Miss Nair’s film.


TITLE: “The Namesake”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexuality/nudity, some disturbing images and brief language)

CREDITS: Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Sooni Taraporevala based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight. com/thenamesake


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