The Namesake begins at Calcutta’s Howrah train station. Crowded, raucous, and large, the place is full of travelers going in different directions, mothers and fathers, sons and sisters, imagining themselves into unknowable futures. Inside a train car, a mother fans her child, a thin arm dangles from a bunk, and the camera picks up a young man, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), his head buried in a book, Gogol’s The Overcoat. An older man encourages him to “see” the world: “You’ll never regret it.” Ashoke smiles, “My grandfather said that’s what books are for, to travel without moving an inch.” Quiet and respectful, their exchange lasts only a minute or two. And then the train crashes.
In this moment, amid wreckage and noise and moaning survivors, The Namesake begins again. Ashoke next appears in bed, his face bruised nearly beyond recognition, his leg in a cast. Though the movie doesn’t specify the process of his coming decisions, this briefly held image intimates his thinking. He will see the world, he will move. In fact, he moves to New York City, with a PhD in fiber optics, and becomes a university professor. Still, he reveres his family and traditions, and in the film’s third sequence, he selects an Indian wife to accompany him back to America.
Or, you could say, she selects him. Ashima (Tabu) makes her first appearance as she scurries to meet Ashoke at her parents’ home. The year is 1977, the marriage is arranged, and their first encounter is perfect. Just before she walks into the room where they wait, she peeks inside, then looks down at the shoes left outside the door. She pauses, removes her own embroidered slippers, and slides her bare feet into Ashoke’s stylish American shoes, trying out the fit. The meeting that follows is charming in a gentle, pleasant way—she recites Wordsworth (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”), Ashoke shyly smiles—but throughout, the lovely moment of the shoes lingers in your mind’s eye, an indication of their now unknowable future.
Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by Sooni Taraporevala, Mira Nair’s movie is laced through with such details—of color, gesture, and understanding—moments at once metaphorical and explicit, revealing complex subjective states. Attentive to surfaces as well as nuances, The Namesake is about legacies and responsibilities, ambitions and dislocations. It is also about searches for homes and origins, as these lead not back to where you’ve come from, but instead to unexpected places.
Ashoke and Ashima’s travels take them to one another and beyond. In the movie, their roles and discoveries are extended from those in the novel, such that they lead not only to their son Gogol, the novel’s protagonist, but also to one another. Thus the film offers three protagonists, their experiences intertwined, embarking on journeys back and forth in time and between New York and Calcutta. During the first weeks of their marriage, as Ashima adjusts to life in Ashoke’s one-bedroom apartment in Yonkers, they recognize in one another desires to see the world, to taste, feel, and share it with one another.
Their initial realization is provoked when Ashima, in an effort to be a good wife, takes Ashoke’s clothes to the laundromat, shrinking his favorite sweater to child’s size. His upset soon becomes empathy, as she locks herself in the bathroom, the full weight of their separate choices to move to America with a stranger suddenly clear. As she cracks the door, they see one another anew.
Their mutual commitment expands with the birth of Gogol, whose name is a function of the slippage between old and new that informs the Gangulis’ lives. Waiting to receive a “good name” (a public name) from Ashima’s grandmother back in India, they give the infant a private, familial name, after Ashoke’s favorite writer. The boy’s own relationship to the name adjusts over time, as does his relationship to his background. Raised in the States, he and his younger sister Sonia (Sahira Nair) imagine themselves Americans, eager to slough off the backwards old world. He embraces the name’s oddity as a four-year-old (played by Soham Chatterjee), as Ashima notes, “In this country, the children decide.” But a rock-music-loving teenager (played by Kal Penn), Gogol wonders at his parents’ selection. Listing the facts he’s recently discovered—Gogol was a hypochondriac and starved himself to death—he asks, “Did you guys know all this stuff about him when you decided to name me after him?” Ashima’s response is oblique but to the point of their evolving generational and cultural divide: “Don’t call us ‘guys’! Sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel like I’ve given birth to strangers!”
It’s a funny and surprising little explosion, especially as Ashima quite embodies patience throughout the film. But it speaks to the incongruities all the Gangulis come to feel at some point or another, in relation to each other and their various settings. A trip to India occasions still other changes. While Ashoke and Ashima look back, briefly (he wonders why she agreed to marry him back in 1974), Gogol seeks his own ground. Rejecting a ride in a rickshaw (“It’s feudal, it’s exploitative”), he discovers a calling when they see the Taj Mahal. “I want to major in architecture,” he announces, “It’s got everything.”
As the family travels from New York to Calcutta and back again, they pass by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s “Travelogues” installation at JFK Airport’s international terminal. Holographic images transform depending on passersby’s positions, such that dark-skinned figures become light and vice versa. Identities are fluid and location affects perspective slides easily into the film’s interests in individuals’ mutating self-understandings over time and places. Their arrival home again, now the burbs, brings to bear the other side of living in the U.S., when they find graffiti on their mailbox. Gogol fumes that he’ll exact revenge on the “racist punk” responsible, but he soon finds other ways to define himself anew.
The fact that his major decisions along this route are embodied by girls he loves—the exceedingly pale and rich Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a fellow student at Yale, and the “exotic” world traveler and fellow Bengali Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson)—is vaguely tiresome. They’re less characters than elaborations on Gogol’s fleeting desires. Still, the film’s more consistent focus, on Gogol’s relationships with his parents, is increasingly rewarding, as their pasts and presents come together in a kind of collage—much like the colorful cutout cards Ashima pastes together at Christmas, their experiences don’t so much blend as they intersect.
Though Gogol imagines himself to be sophisticated, enlightened, and “American,” he’s also drawn back repeatedly to his family, and more specifically, to the traditions they revere. Rendered in visual impressions rather than plotty assertions, these complex relationships are affecting and unforgettable: during a phone call to Ashima, Ashoke presses his hand against the phone booth’s glass, his flesh paled by the pressure; visiting his father’s temporary apartment (during a semester when he’s teaching at another college), Gogol slips his feet into Ashoke’s shoes, much as his mother did so many years before, a gesture of intimacy and longing. Such moving details make The Namesake both exquisite and expansive.