Friday, April 06, 2007

Notes on The Namesake (film and book)

Was pleasantly surprised by Mira Nair's film of The Namesake. I read the Jhumpa Lahiri book years ago and though I liked it (in a languorous, Sunday-afternoon-read sort of way), I found it difficult to imagine a successful film version. For starters, this is a slice-of-life tale, and not a very obviously cinematic one – in essence it’s a series of vignettes from the lives of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, a Bengali couple who settle in the US in the 1970s following an arranged marriage, and their son Gogol, who grows up between two cultures.

From the point of view of plot development, nothing extraordinary happens. Ashima settles into her new life in an unfamiliar country with her husband, even growing to love him over time (though she would never use that word; "I love you" is something Americans say to each other). The years rush by, they go on annual trips to India with their children. Gogol (so named because of Ashoke's admiration for the Russian writer) has trouble relating to his name and is teased about it in college, but after his father's sudden death he starts feeling closer to his roots; this eventually leads to his breaking up with his American girlfriend and marrying a Bengali NRI – which doesn’t turn out to be the best decision. And that's about it. The book doesn’t tie up the loose ends in its protagonists' lives – when it finishes we have the sense that Gogol still has many things to come to terms with, and more growing up to do.

At one level The Namesake is the archetypal book about the immigrant experience, the adjustment problems of the diaspora and the generation gap between traditional Indian parents and their foreign-born children with "strange accents" (in short, the type of book that gets bad press when critics/readers complain about NRI writers' obsession with the Dislocation theme). But there's more to it than this limited vision would suggest. Much of its power derives from Lahiri's examination of the relationship between parents and children who are emotionally close to each other but whose lives have had completely different cultural signposts. The refrain "Get out and see the world" is first used in the context of the young Ashoke being encouraged to travel to another country and culture (at a time when it wasn't easy for a middle-class Indian to do so), but it acquires deeper resonance later in the story – Gogol's attempt to understand his parents' early life and what made them the people they were amounts to a different sort of "getting out and seeing the world" (perhaps it's better described as "looking inward and seeing the world"). The idea that children can find affirmation and a sense of self in the spaces that their parents once occupied, even when those spaces don't have a direct connection to their own lives, is movingly explored here.

But coming back to why I was surprised by the effectiveness of Nair's film: apart from the fact that the book doesn't have a clear-cut narrative arc, it has surprisingly few conversations. Mostly, an omniscient narrator tells us about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the reader is gently swept along by Lahiri's lucid writing. And though this is a valid enough approach, it's a bit problematic that we rarely get to hear the protagonists speaking in their own voices - at some level they remain distanced from us. Gogol in particular: intellectually, we understand his confusion, the shifts in his feelings over time, and especially the effect his father's sudden death has on him, but we never completely get into his head.

A frequent criticism of movie adaptations is that where the book allows us to participate in the creative process (using our imaginations to fill in the characters and settings, for instance), the film by its very nature makes everything explicit, closing the door on imagination. But I thought Nair's film was more satisfying than the novel precisely because these characters are presented to us in specific terms, we see them talking to each other, and most importantly all this is done extremely well. The casting is near-perfect – Irfan Khan (who's excellent), Tabu and Kal Penn bring an immediacy to the characters of Ashoke, Ashima and Gogol that I sometimes missed in the book.

Nair's direction is economical and understated, and not a scene feels out of place. I especially like the way she shows different cultures inhabiting the same space, often knocking awkwardly against each other. In Ashima's earnest recital of William Wordsworth's "Daffodils", a performance intended to impress her potential parents-in-law, we see the use of an iconic English poem (with phrases like "o'er vales and hills", which are hardly easy for an Indian reader to relate to) in the most traditional of Indian contexts. And when Gogol makes the personal decision to get his head shaved as a mark of respect to his deceased father, there's a very striking scene in the barbershop – a gangsta-rap score plays in the background, reminding us that in the country where Gogol has grown up, the image of a young man getting his head shaved can carry very different associations. (I don't remember this passage in the book too well, so I'm not sure if the contrast was Lahiri's to begin with.)

There are many subtler moments scattered throughout the film: the uneasy look on the conservative Ashima’s face when she visits a laundromat in NY and sees an old man undressing casually before putting his clothes into the washing machine; Gogol's refusal to sit in a rickshaw in Calcutta with his mother and sister because it's being pulled by a fellow human: "it's totally feudal"; his American girlfriend at the prayer service, genuinely concerned and interested in the proceedings but looking distinctly out of place in her black skirt and stockings; and Gogol’s quiet hostility towards her.

On the whole this is a gentle feel-good film, full of well-meaning characters, and one that could be accused of "playing safe" (there's almost nothing here that might make a viewer uncomfortable – it's hard to imagine anyone disliking this film). But it’s honest and uncontrived in a way that many feelgood movies aren’t. You believe in these characters, their feelings for one another and their personal struggles, and this gives the film conviction where it might otherwise have turned into a compendium of NRI clichés.


  1. nice post, agree about it playing safe...

    just a note on this detail:

    Mostly, an omniscient narrator tells us about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the reader is gently swept along by Lahiri's lucid writing. And though this is a valid enough approach, it's a bit problematic that we rarely get to hear the protagonists speaking in their own voices - at some level they remain distanced from us.

    haven't read the book but an omniscient narrator can inhabit a character's psyche too and by exploring his/her thoughts and feelings from the inside, tha narrator can give the voice to the character too, a voice which is particular and specific to the character. Dialogues aren't really necessary, in fact in many cases they are meant to show how big the gap is between the inner and outer dialogues, and that's one of the aims of realistic fiction.... May be Lahiri isn't able to achieve this so-called free indirect style, that will ne a major criticism of the book if this is indeed the case.

  2. Havnt watched the film yet. Havnt even finished reading your post. But will comment like a hasty child. woohoo.

    I was just gonna say for now: so important to add --> 'in a langerous, sundary afternoon sort of way'.

    and in response to the first line i read about your positive response to The film, i said - REALLY????

    I have to watch it now. I feel like i am going to have some strong opinions. MN annoyed the hell out of me with MW. I enjoyed MW in an entertaining evening with nice food sort of way. It wasn't good art as such. I feel like both MN and GC try too hard to use ray-like imagery or characters to the point that things just seem formulaic (like the old woman in WATER who was not even close to indir thakur in evoking a complex response given the way she was framed and was captured by the camera.) IN Monsoon wedding, to my mind, Nair just sprinkled that story about child-abuse as an ingredient JUST TO say that - oh this film is serious.

    I was talking to someone about the Namesake. I was told that she showed brooklyn bridge and the howrah bridge a number of times. and my friend responded- ok, dude, we got the point. and you filming isn't too poetic as such.

    Anyway, so sorry to comment without EITHER reading your post fully yet (dunno whenever i visit your blog, i am always super-hungry),AND without watching the film. but just felt like responding hastily like a child.

    You know. I am so looking fwd to reading what YOU have to say (sorry that i capitalise instead of italicising, too lazy)that i am not even going to read it until i watch the film myself. i will be so curious to see how i respond and how that compares with yours. hahahahaha. why am i sharing my thought-process with you. i just had soem coffee. and internet is strange.

    Thanks for the review. Will come back to it in a month. Until then will FORCE myself to ignore it each time i visit your blog.

    Sorry about this really long, rambling post. I hate to see how long it is.


  3. i saw the movie the other day and totally agree with u. Though my husband didnt like the movie too much I really fell in love with it and when i was trying to explain to him that why its lovely i mentioned almost the same points that u had mentioned here, I also loved the scene where Tabu slips into his sneakers when he comes to see her portrays the effect of westernization in those times

  4. Alok: you're right about the omniscient narrator, of course. I just felt it was a somewhat distancing choice to make for this particular story - and the fact that the film showed the characters interacting with each other made it more intimate and comforting.

    Paaruuull: namaskar. Long comments always welcome. (Makes me feel less guilty about writing long posts!) That point about the Brooklyn Bridge and Howrah Bridge is right, btw - it wasn't exactly in-your-face but it was just a bit too self-conscious for my liking. One five-second shot of each bridge might have sufficed.

    Monika: yes, I forgot to mention the sneakers. The whole scene taken together is quite surreal, isn't it - Bengali girl surreptitiously trying on sneakers that say "Made in U.S.", and then reciting a Wordsworth poem in faltering English, all in a very Indian situation.

  5. I could hardly disagree more. The movie was a great disappointment; I'd expected better from the reviews. I think the most serious problem was the disconnect in sensibilities between writer and director. Lahiri is a rather subdued writer (a semi-depressive sensibility pervades the book), but she has a nice instinct for language, hers is a prose of grace and precision. Nair, on the other hand, is ebullient, she likes dramatic flourishes. A movie of this kind does not play to her strengths, and she's done it without much conviction, it's a by-the-numbers job.

    The movie is salvaged to some extent by the acting - Irfan Khan, Tabu and Kal Penn are all superb (Zuleikha Robinson is a disaster - what's with all the vamping?) though it's a little odd that the former two have meatier parts than the supposed protagonist. But dramatically it is inert, and Nair seems to be conscious of this, hence the desperate flashbacks, the tiresome emphasis on certain motifs. Could anything be more cliched than the Taj Mahal scene? It's kind of symbolic, the movie can't stand on it's own, so it needs the Taj as a prop.

    In the last half an hour, the movie just loses it completely. Gogol's transformation is not credible, the marriage and break-up are rushed through, and then he goes off to see the world?!? Nair's totally out of ideas by this point. It's true that the book is hard to film, but a more sensitive director would have done a far better job.

  6. I just saw the movie and have read the book and I kind of agree with Cheshire Cat. There are one or two Nair touches which seem very loud whereas the book treats any issues of conflict in a very subdued manner - especially with regard to ABCD issues/the portrayal of WASP society the movie clearly tilts towards aggressiveness (don't know if this is because Mira is raised Indian whereas the author is to some extent American). Nair doesn't really reinvent the book for cinema - its pretty much faithful to the book with a few jarring moments in between. That said I thought Irfan Khan was excellent - more so than Tabu - and the rest of the main cast is very good too (except for Moushumi who in the book was so interesting but here is very ordinary).

    I am not very sure what lets Nair down - Vanity Fair for e.g. was a mish-mash but I leave the dissection of her work to a proper film critic :-)

  7. In some ways, I was reminded of the Apu Trilogy in the common themes of uprooting, alienation between generations and (incomplete) reconciliation.

    Also, Nair extracted and embellished the right parts of the book for the movie.

  8. I wasn't wowed by the book and the movie interpretaion had the same impact on me. It was an interesting watch on a Sunday afternoon, but nothing mind blowing (if you want to watch a mind blowing movie, go see 'The lives of others')

    On your comment about there was nothing that would make the viewer uncomfortable - the only thing that really disturbed me was the constant reference to 'this only happens in america' (i know i am not saying saying the right words here, but you probably know what i am talking about...the cast distancing themselves from all things american). It was funny the first couple of times but repeating it throughout the movie was a bit insulting to americans, i thought. only the indians in the theatre found it funny.

    my other source of disappointment was Kal Penn - i found his acting mediocre. Tabu and Irfan Khan were outstanding.

    nice review!

  9. Am feeling suffocated by the OVER-praise of this OVER-hyped film. If Jabberwock and anyone else here cares for the OPPOSITE view, read this:

  10. I have read the book and watched the movie. Considering how hard it is to adapt a book into a screenplay, I think Nair has done a good job.

    I thought Irfan Khan overacted in parts, but was good overall. Tabu does a good job, but is horribly miscast, as is Robinson. They don't look even a bit Bangali. Penn I thought turned in a very good performance. He seems to be getting subtler with each performance, and that is the right direction to go for an actor.

    Cinematography-wise, I thought the film was good. It also had its finer moments as Jai mentioned, such as the shaving of the head with hip hop playing in the background.

  11. It's hard to imagine anyone disliking this film, agreed, unless that person were a white American. Even I suffered a little at the caricatures of Whitey - all snooty Connecticut obliviousness and sharp-fanged yuppie insensitivity - mere icebergs, in fact, for tender, warm Indians to break themselves against. Didnt you think?

  12. Raghu: I don't agree that the whites were "all snooty Connecticut obliviousness and sharp-fanged yuppie insensitivity". What about Ashima's colleague/friend? And Maxine's family, who accept Gogol as one of their own without making a point of it. In fact, we get the distinct sense that Gogol has been unfair to Maxine when he brushes her off because he's going through this process of rediscovery; in fact, by the end of the film you have to think he would have been better off with her.

    I didn't at all get the impression that the film was advocating "Indian warmth" as being superior to other cultures.

  13. As an aside, listened to the soundtrack a couple of days back. It's pretty good though it has an annoying tuneless drunk Bangla
    'song', but that is more to elicit humor than anything else.

    Music is by Nitin Sahwney, which pleasantly surprised me as I used to think of him as a Punjabi Pop singer, but some of the instrumental stuff is very good and the other two Bangla songs are decent.

  14. I was very disappointed by Namesake. I haven't read the novel, except for an excerpt that had come out in the New Yorker some years back, so I can't compare the movie & the book.

    My quibbles:
    - The Bengali that Tabu & Irfan speak is so fake, it's like watching those old Shakti Samanta Bengali-Hindi productions like Amanush. Being a Bengali-speaker, this was a major irritant & distraction to me, since a large part of the movie uses Bengali. At one point Kal Penn pronounces 'Bangali' with a heavier emphasis on the second 'a', which no Bengali (even second generations) would say. Similarly they use the word 'samosa' instead of 'singara', a very Hindi word someone like the Gangulys would never use. I have a masi living in New Jersey for the past many many years, I am quite familiar with the mileu.
    - The pacing of the story is glacial. Irfan speaks so s--l--o--w--l--y I felt I could go out & get a popcorn & soda before he would finish his sentence. Hardly anything happens in the first two-thirds of the movie, & then suddenly breakups, deaths & infidelity get jammed in. Everything I liked about Monsoon Wedding & Vanity Fair - the irreverance, the energy, the wry observations - have all disappeared here & replaced by interminable scenes of airports (where Delhi is spelt Dehli) & Brooklyn Bridge.

    Guess I need to read the book now.

    Dipta, I also felt some ghosts of Ray in this movie (like I did in Water). The quote by Irfan's train copassenger about going out & seeing the world, is very similar to what Apu's school headmaster told him in Aparajito. Then, Tabu waking up in her new house in America reminded me of Sharmila in 'Apur Sansar/ World of Apu', with a closeup of her eye. Finally the train scene just before the accident, got me thinking of 'Sonar Kella/ Golden Fortress' & the many scenes in the train in that movie, with the low lighting & sense of claustophobia.

  15. Hey all, it was really fascinating reading all your comments. could someone please comment on the parent-son sources of conflict? i find that very interesting and would like another perspective. I appreciate it!

  16. i started this book and got 3 chapters in and got bored with it. it is a school assignment to have to read it so if anybody knows where to get some good cliff notes let me know

  17. I thought this book was great. Reading the book, i understood the reasons behind Ashima and Ashoke's decisions in life. When i watched the movie, you see more of Gogol's take on life. I enjoyed the book very much but felt the movie did not do the book justice.

  18. I just re-read this book (didn't remember much from my first hurried reading) and searched your blog to see whether you'd written on it. As regards Ashoke shaving his head after his father's death, I thought it was more subtly and far more effectively done in the book: Ashima finds him shaving his head with a razor and is distressed because he's cut himself in quite a few places in the process. She tries to stop him, but he shuts and locks the bathroom door on her and finishes the task. His grief is lost on his son, who laughs at the shaved head, while his toddler daughter starts crying at the transformation. I thought the scenario conveyed Ashoke's alienation in a foreign land, his lonely grieving very well. Getting a haircut at a barber's with rap playing in the background was rather a heavy-handed touch, I feel.

  19. I have not read the book so maybe it is better but I absolutely loved this movie. I thought Kal Penn was phenomenal and I cried as did my wife when his father explains to him what his name means. I really enjoy movies about different cultures and was really blown away by this movie. Highly recommend.

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