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Indian American

Kumar digs his roots in The Namesake

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Movies about the generation gap or the immigrant experience can feel interchangeable, earnestly and mechanically pounding away at the same amorphous observations about differences in countries and cultures, ages and attitudes. But in its adaptation of Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-loved novel, The Namesake came up with a crafty solution: Just smash the two topics together and see what happens.

The Namesake concerns a Bengali couple (Tabu and Irfan Khan, both superstars in India) who emigrate from Calcutta to New York City in the ’70s, and spawn two kids who sport no attachment to their parents’ native land. For two hours, explorations of the delicate balance between tradition and progress, and between the personal and familial, ricochet off one another like balls in a game of Arkanoid. Turns out two negatives really do equal a positive, even when it comes to lousy movie genres.

Actually, make that three lousy movie genres. The Namesake is, after all, also a book-to-
film adaptation. Mira Nair—the Indian-born director of Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding—has always had quite the eye, even if it sometimes gets in the way of other matters. (Sure, her Reese Witherspoon-centric Vanity Fair is pretty, but a likable Becky Sharp?) Fortunately, even from The Namesake’s initial scenes, it’s apparent Nair has found equilibrium—a smooth fusion of the novelistic and the cinematic.

Her secret? An accumulation of short, well-chosen scenes, plus a heavy reliance on ellipses. This is no better demonstrated than in the film’s opening act, which portrays Khan and Tabu arriving at a ramshackle New York apartment just in time for winter. In between calling home to rhapsodize on the 24-hour gas and drinkable water, the two—strangers prior to their arranged marriage—try to eke out a workable existence together, even if it’s more as roommates than lovers. But a few stray moments of genuine, tailor-fit affection between them begin to suggest a far more interesting marriage taking place mostly off-screen.

Soon enough Tabu is with child, who turns out to be Kal Penn, the genius of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (and the non-genius of two Van Wilders and Epic Movie). Penn’s character winds up named Gogol, after the Russian author of his father’s favorite short story “The Overcoat”—the source of the first and most persistent parent/son rift of the film. From there we can guess the rest: Penn (who briefly reunites with the bud) grows up resentful of his parents’ traditionalism, scores a Caucasian girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and infrequently returns calls from home.

Alas, Penn’s transgressions aren’t quite immune to the whims of fiction  plotting: While Penn’s holing up at his girlfriend’s  WASP-y parents’ New England estate for his birthday, Khan (who gives a heartbreakingly befuddled performance) abruptly suffers a fatal heart attack.

But The Namesake isn’t a wrist-slapping paean to the goodness of the elder generation and the evils of ungrateful young. Much like the parents in the film, Nair immigrated to America in her youth, and she (along with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala) clearly has a more complicated lived-in take on such matters. Again and again Nair has the chance to score easy points for tradition or modernity, and each time she takes a more interesting route.

In fact, Nair seems more horrified by Penn’s actions after his father’s death than before it. Newly dedicated to returning to his roots, Penn cruelly rebukes the loving Barrett and marries one of his own, Zuleikha Robinson—a once snooty girl who returned from Paris as a Euro-obsessed hotcha. The two share a healthy, joking disrespect for the more regressive parts of their culture, but it’s still a parents-placating union. Robinson ultimately proves adulterous, but again Nair grants her the respect of a motivation, refusing to offer her up to the tongue-clicking portion of the audience.

As Penn struggles to locate a balance between heritage and modernity, so does Nair, who dices up past and present, as well as the disparate urban landscapes of New York and Calcutta, in search of truths rather than truth. Lensed by the great Frederick Elmes (once David Lynch’s director of photography), The Namesake is that rare novel adaptation whose priority is still images, whether memories or well-composed shots.

As any movie that spans a Sidney Sheldonesque number of generations, The Namesake still can’t quite shake off its episodic nature. But it has a fluidity and an openness that gets you ruminating, sincerely and unmechanically, on ideas most movies present as open and shut.

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