Visually and aurally intoxicating movies for people with both hearts and brains: this, in a nutshell, has long been Mira Nair’s modus operandi, her film fest and marketplace calling card, and the best reason to try and keep up with her increasingly impressive filmography. Her lush, ethnographically rich aesthetic and readily digestible humanist impulses make for a happy medium for discerning cinephiles who tend more toward the “guilty” than the “pleasures” when it comes to the work of other prominent visual/aural stylists — Baz Luhrmann or Julie Taymor, say. So, Moulin Rouge was a tad much for you to stomach?
Give Monsoon Wedding a shot. Trust me, when the hapless but well-meaning event coordinator stares longingly from his (mother’s) dingy apartment balcony at the sunset’s darkening pastels, you’ll swoon, too. You can thank me later.
I mean, even Vanity Fair wasn’t so bad, at least when approached within the context of its own set terms and limitations; it was basically just an elaborate excuse for Nair to try her hand at the Western period piece. My best guess says, now that she’s tested the ropes of the form, there’s a first-rate Henry James or D.H. Lawrence adaptation lurking somewhere in the expanses of her imagination.
Nair is at her best, though, when she keeps things closer to home, by which I mean neither India nor America necessarily, but rather the ever-shrinking distance between the two, both geographically and culturally. It’s not statelessness we’re talking about either.
Nair is admirably loyal to the social specificities of her birth-country, though she rightfully, if sometimes painfully, concedes that a good many of India’s traditions and nuances have become diluted in the process of “development” (read: Westernization). She’s also cautiously hopeful for the future of expatriate families and communities making uneasy adjustments in “First World” countries, with around-the-clock hydro service and fancy-ass shoes.
So it goes in The Namesake, Nair’s screen version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s celebrated chronicle of the life and times of a Bengali family in the U.S. of A. The finished product is a flawed but heartfelt movie with more ideas — about adjustment anxiety, second-generation ambivalence, the inherent lure of the exotic, the obligation of roots, and plenty of other relevant topics — than minutes in its two-hour runtime. Inevitably, amid the expected flourishes of visual (the Taj Mahal has never been captured more wondrously on screen) and aural (a playful, sensually-charged honeymoon lip-sync and dance sequence is among the most ebullient moments in Nair’s catalogue) rapture, there are loose strands left dangling.
On the one hand, this leaves the film feeling rather formless where it should be taut; on the other, it suggests a confidence in the audience’s ability to talk and think that too many current filmmakers don’t share. Reasonably enough, Nair assumes that most of her viewers are adults, and that as such, we can process many of the ideas she leaves on the table through the filter of our own experiences.
Anyone who’s struggled to belong somewhere, coped with the grief of an unexpected death of a loved one, or simply attempted to move on from a rough break-up, should be able to connect at least some of The Namesake‘s fuzzier dots. Maybe second-generationer Gogol’s WASPy girlfriend Maxine is your easiest point of entry — work from there.
Worthwhile pleasures rarely come without effort in life, so why should they in cinema? Judging from the film’s somewhat misleading trailer and its unwieldy structure, Gogol (played awkwardly by Kal Pan of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle fame) is intended to serve as protagonist and audience-surrogate here. The movie, though, belongs to Tabu, the Indian model/actress cast as his mom.
In a performance that spans both decades and the full gamut of human emotions, Tabu hits all the right notes, often shining brightest just when The Namesake seems dangerously close to running off the narrative rails. Whatever else you get out of this movie — a give-take equation that depends largely on your willingness to follow Nair’s lead — it’s worth watching for Tabu’s superlative turn alone, which would earn her an Oscar if there were any justice in the First World.
DVD special features include audio commentary by Nair, deleted scenes, and a terrific quartet of featurettes, offering insight into various aspects of the film’s production and origins.