Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (Irrfan Khan and Tabu/Tabassum Fatima Hashmi) are a traditional Indian couple in every sense of the word. They had a formally arranged marriage, a large Bengali wedding, and a strong sense of duty, family, and culture. Immediately after the wedding, the couple immigrate to the United States, Ashima hesitant, but Ashoke hopefully that this will ensure a better life for their future children. The couple settles in New York, and their two Indian-American children are anything but traditional. Based on the gorgeous novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake chronicles the conventionally unconventional life of the Gangulis’ son, Gogol (Kal Penn), and his growth as a person as he tries make his Indian heritage fit into his American life.
Ashoke had meant to give his son the middle name Gogol (the surname of his favourite writer, Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol), with Nikhil as his first name, his “good” name, but through a series of miscommunications, Gogol Ganguli becomes their son’s official name, a mistake which sets the tone for Gogol’s entire life, where he is constantly battling between what he wants and the expectations of his culture and family, and falling somewhere in between. Gogol grows up both embarrassed of his name, and resentful of his Indian heritage, until a high school graduation trip to India changes his perspective, and his intended major. Unfortunately, college and post-graduate life, as well as a romantic relationship with a WASP, distance Gogol further from his family, but a tragedy causes him to appreciate his family, as well as the symbolism and honour in so many cultural traditions that he’d previous shunned. As Gogol learns to embrace who he is, he finds peace, love, joy, pain, and the story behind his namesake.
Besides being overflowing with culture and family, like all of director Mira Nair’s work (see: Queen of Katwe and Monsoon Wedding), The Namesake features an incredibly talented cast of Indian actors (not White people born in Indian, not Arabs playing Indians, but actual cultural and ethnic Indians), and eloquently captures the constant feeling of being “in-between”, neither here or there, of being a first-generation child of immigrants. In trying to be the perfect model minority American, Gogol risked losing himself and any ties to the most important aspects of himself. In diving head first into Indian customs, Gogol blinds himself to what he truly wants. A remarkable dramatic performance by Penn, and featuring a score as lush and vivid as the story, The Namesake is more than just a drama, but a story of self-discovery.
I give this one 4.25 stars.