Friday, April 13, 2007

The Namesake

I know which book I’m going to read next – I haven’t read more than three in the last decade, succumbing to the more shallow pleasures of the audio-visual media (tv / movies) instead – but this one I will definitely read.

It’s a beautiful movie, very well made by Mira Nair. Its a simple, touching account of how Ashok Ganguli (Irfan Khan), meets his wife, Ashima (Tabu), takes her to New York and then, as their children, Gogol and Sonya grow up, how all of them cope with their dual identities (are they American or Indian ?). The tale is told very simply, almost like a salad without garnishing, but that only enhances the story, makes us more aware of the ripeness and flavour of the vegetables on offer.

It was very refreshing to watch this movie as opposed to the normal Bollywood potboiler. There are actual ‘pauses’, interludes when no one is doing anything dramatic, just living / being normal. It really helps us understand the central characters, but it does so effortlessly, almost without spending too much time with them. It moves quite seamlessly from one chapter to another in the lives of the Ganguli’s. It shows us a glimpse of what they are going through – whether its childbirth, the loss of a loved one or even a holiday to India - and then it moves on. It doesn’t try to dramatise the situations or try to force us to feel the emotions the characters are going through – however, the tears or laughter from those around me in the audience showed that they got through !

There are lovely little touches throughout the movie – when Tabu is in hospital to give birth (has recently shifted to USA and is still not used to their culture), she asks the nurse if she can have a longer hospital maternity dress as their standard issue is only knee length. There was the realistic depiction of the trauma that all NRI’s go through when we have to endlessly spell our names over the phone. There was the hilarious episode when a teen-aged Gogol, while on a holiday to Kolkatta, decides to go for a jog on the streets. And there was the authentic portryal of Kolkatta – complete with dilapidated buildings, the sea of eccentric humanity that infests it and its quirky highlights including the tram, the boats on the Hooghly, the brightly coloured sari’s hung to dry from the buildings, Durga Pooja etc. Also, I could easily relate to the ‘dinner with other Indian families’ where the conversation is all about India and after a few drinks, everyone starts singing (quite terribly, in most cases), very old songs.

Tabu and Irfan Khan were exceptional in the movie. Irfan makes for an extremely convincing Bengali academic, a bit lost / measured, living life his way / at his own pace and showing a remarkable ability to do or say the right thing at the right time. He may not always understand his children but he knows when to step in or let go. Tabu is the quintessential, good Bengali girl (very good-looking / she cooks / knits / is a trained classical singer etc) who maintains her own identity even while living in America. She is enigmatic (as in the above photo), yet very pragmatic. When asked by her prospective father in law, whether she won't mind moving to USA, being in the freezing / very cold winters of New York and whether she won't mind being lonely, her eyes at first betray her alarm / her fear of the unknown life ahead, but then she smiles and shyly says ‘Why, wont he be there ?’. Kal Penn, as Gogol, was very good as well, making us understand the dilemma’s that his character faced. And a special mention of Zuleikha Robinson, who as Moushumi Mazumdar, played an Americanised version of the stereotypical sultry Bengali siren with great aplomb !

I think this movie will bear several viewings quite easily – there will be new little details / many layers revealing themselves everytime we watch the movie. It raises several questions about life, the choices we make, our roots, how we bring up our kids. Yet quite amazingly, for a movie dealing in such heavy topics, it doesn’t feel ‘heavy’, it doesn’t burden you with the questions. And while it does tug at our heartstrings as we experience the Ganguli’s journey through life, it doesn’t try to take you through an emotional rollercoaster. You leave the cinema hall with a strange calm, a nice, warm, happy, peaceful feeling.


Anonymous said...

I loved the book. In fact so much so that I read it twice. The book is infinitely better than the movie. The book delves deeper into the two major storylines.
My sister in law Shilpa grew up in NJ. Her parent emigrated to the US in the 70s. She felt that this was her story. The loneliness that her parents felt was communicated so effectively in the book and in the movie. Phone calls were exhorbitant. Also Not everyone in India had Phones in those days. Airline tickets were expensive- People travelled to India maybe once ever 3-4 years. This generation made more Indian friends (there werent that many Desis especially if you think of places other than NYC - the book is set in Boston). You know the scene where Gogol tells Max that he could never imagine his parents buying a summer retreat.. I felt like shouting - you idiot, why would they buy a house to be away from everyone- They are already so far away from their near and dear ones in this foreign land.

Our generation- people who came to the US or The UK in the 90s can identify with Ashoke and Ashima only to an extent. We were lucky - Phone calls to India were not terribly expensive ( though in 1992 , it used to cost me $1.55/min to call India. I was a more diligent letter writer in those days). And now with the Internet, PC Cameras and a very favorable 5C/min rate to call India, I am in touch with my family constantly. I didnt have a hard time making friends though there was a bit of culture shock - The damn place was too quiet and the tallest bldg was 13 floors tall. I was expecting a metropolis and I got corn fields)
I think the generation that is coming to the US now doesnt get as much of a culture shock as we did and is assimilating much better than even we did.
Coming back to the Movie.. Please see it . But more importantly buy the book and read it..

Daddy's Girl said...

I just wanted to say this is probably the best review of 'The Namesake' I have read so far. Lovely piece.