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.