I had seen an earlier film about an NRI family having children born and brought up in the United States. And that was “Mitr my Friend” directed by Revathi. That film centered around the lonely wife and how she comes to terms with her estranged daughter. The Namesake is more about the son, Gogol. The guy who’s born in the US to Indian parents, who feels like he’s American but has roots in India. It’s about his personal struggle for identity. It’s about him shuttling between his two names, Gogol and Nikhil.
I haven’t read the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri on which this film is based. But, you get whiffs of the novel from the whole sprawling feel that the film has to it. You can’t really point out and say that this film is about the father, the mother or the son. It’s peppered with lots of little but memorable characters. And it’s not about a specific time period either. The film begins with the marriage of Ashoke and Ashima and takes us through their lives until both their children get married. This sprawling nature should definitely have stemmed from the novel.
The attribute which is both a plus and a minus to this film is the pace of editing. This film’s editing has a rhythm, which I admired at the beginning. It tends to jump from a specific moment in life to quite another. A straight cut could take you to the next moment or it could take you forward several years. One moment you see Tabu in hospital with her husband, after they’ve just named their newborn son Gogol and another moment you’d see them at a beach and she has another kid in hand. And the next moment Gogol is all grown up and the next moment the family of four is having breakfast. That was a beautiful moment in the film. Tabu tells her kids that sometimes she feels they’ve become quite alien, as if they’re not her kids anymore. As an audience, at that point, that’s exactly what we feel too. The abrupt cuts successfully create that effect upon us. When you put together Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu with the two American Indian actors it gives us that sudden jolt, “Wait a minute! These four are one family? Those are her kids? Really?”
After a point though, the abrupt cuts became too monotonous. I also felt I was not quite getting into the head of Gogol. What exactly was he thinking when he broke up with his American girlfriend? Did he break up with her because he felt she kept him away from his father during his death? Did he break up with her because she represented his American dream and it was already shattered? What was going on in Ashima’s head when she refused to go with her husband to Ohio? Perhaps I should read the novel and it might give me stronger hints.
Another problem for me was the English in this film. It felt contrived in several places, especially when Irfan Khan and Tabu spoke in English to each other during quite intimate moments. Maybe these are some of the compromises that one has to do for the film to be made in Hollywood. Also, the key problem of this film, Gogol’s identity crisis, which is symbolised by him hating his name wasn’t established well enough. We just see a few of his classmates making fun of his name and that’s it. His hatred or disgust of the name needed some more solid grounding for us to really feel what he was feeling. That probably went missing because unlike a novel a film must be crisp.
Tabu was easily my most favourite in this film. She’s demure and innocent when she comes to US, she’s caring of her children, she encourages their dreams and slowly as she ages she realises that she needs to let go. I loved her when she goes back to Calcutta with her kids and husband. The way she smiles silently as her kids get accustomed to India and she announces that they’re going to see the Taj Mahal, while riding a rickshaw. And she portrays the moment of utter helplessness so beautifully, when she’s alone and learns the news of her husband who’s dead in a faraway hospital. She doesn’t know what to do and in a fit walks out into the cold night and cries her heart out. It was solid acting and a very well-made scene and it moves you. If not for anything else, you should definitely watch this film for Tabu’s awesome performance.