Mira Nair’s latest shows life as a masterpiece

Adam Griffiths

Trains crash. People move halfway around the world. Babies are born. Marriages end.

And then there’s death, love, regret, joy, sorrow and happiness.

The screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller, The Namesake tells the story of one man’s life in a little more than two hours.

The Namesake

Starring Kal Penn, Zuleikha Robinson, Irfan Khan, Tabu

Directed by Mira Nair

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language

Stater rating (out of five): ****

Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is traveling to see his father in 1970s India when his train crashes. He marries in his homeland, and he brings his new wife, Ashima (Tabu), to New York with him for the promise of a good life. Slowly, both become engrained in the fabric of American life, all along maintaining a strong cultural vindication. Children are born. Both are assimilated into the cu lture that surrounds them.

The obvious struggles occur.

Ashima struggles with leaving her life behind and becoming a wife in a foreign land. Tabu’s performance shines above the rest as Ashima transforms from a naked, vulnerable immigrant into a strong, proud woman who becomes the rock of her family.

Ashoke deals with the generation gap, and essentially a culture gap, between himself and his son Gogol (Kal Penn). A dedicated professor and father, he leaves his children’s lives up to their judgment. Khan’s expression and execution are stunning. We see a man unraveled by the life he has led and a husband who loves his wife in unspeakable ways. But above all else, we are witness to the life of an ordinary man who answers the tasks his life presents him.

Just as we grow to understand and relate to the Ganguli’s, the script throws a curve ball that hits hard. The characters are forced to reevaluate their lives and those whom they’ve placed in them. The film’s closing in narration is a lackluster finish to a sweeping journey, but Gogol’s predominating viewpoint wraps up the emotional trek The Namesake provides.

It’s hard to expect less from Mira Nair, the director who brought us the beautiful Vanity Fair in 2004. Her vision of Lahiri’s novel engrosses us in not only the lives of the characters, but also their culture and environment.

She makes The Namesake as aesthetically functional as it is intriguing. The opening credits, which initially come off as something you might expect on TV, roll out over texture and color-rich canvases. Simple, but Nair makes a point to landscape the film in these patterns and interweaving of Bengali culture, providing a tangible sign of the role of tradition in the characters’ lives. The original score, composed by Nitin Sawhney, is the pool through which Gogol comes to terms with himself and his family.

Nair pulls all of these components together to produce something in which we can all see ourselves. It’s as much a coming of age film as it is the story of a couple falling in love and growing old in a more and more foreign world. It underscores the relationship we take for granted, and makes us realize that family is more than inescapable – it’s obligatory.

The Namesake is multiple generations. It is the story of one man, an addition to the genre of “dad” films. Nair gives us only families and friends, the interactions between this people – a focused camera scope of the lives of a few people. It gives the viewer exclusive, lifelike access, like a second cousin or ex-boyfriend.

To the stories. To the divorce. To the urns of ashes. To the rebirth. The Namesake is as much ours as it is Gogol’s.

Contact ALL correspondent Adam Griffiths at [email protected].