You remind me of everything that followed.Irrfan Khan, The Namesake
Release Date: March 9th, 2007 | Director: Mira Nair
The Namesake is the story of the Ganguli family starting off with Ashoke and Ashmia, the patriarchs of the family and working its way down to the younger generation. The story follows the nominal lifespan of Gogol – Ashoke and Ashmia’s son – as he is named, grows and eventually struggles through his own hardships. The Namesake is a beautiful story of family and the impacts that circumstance can have on one’s own life and the lives of others around us.
Back in high school, the novel version of this film changed my life. Back then, I struggled to understand the immigrant experience from the perspective of my parents. This book was a great way of understanding what immigrant parents sacrifice in order to give their children a life in America. I never really related to Gogol; he comes across as selfish and this movie really does nothing to dispel that characterization of him. I think this movie would’ve been more successful if Gogol had been characterized as having more of a redemption arc. Towards the end of the movie, we do see Gogol coming into his own as part of his family, but it seems to take place in the last few scenes of the movie which makes it hard to feel like he didn’t end his own story as the villain. I find Gogol cruel to his family and ungrateful and I don’t like that he was the protagonist of this specific movie. I don’t necessarily feel that way about his characterization in the book because his character is much more flushed out than it is in the movie. Kal Penn is a decent Gogol but I take issue with the way he was portrayed on the screen. There is no reason to portray someone who chooses to distance himself from his culture as a villain and this movie doesn’t really promote understanding.
In the book, much of the compelling development of the plot comes from the relationship between Gogol and his father. In the movie, many of the scenes that packed an emotional punch in the book were completely dulled down or taken out and the relationship between Gogol and his father just feels very simple. In reality, their relationship was much more complex and entailed much more respect even if it wasn’t necessarily explicit. The movie doesn’t take care to bring forward the complicated aspects of familial relationships when there are two different sets of cultural beliefs. There are some extremely vital scenes which are just glossed over. Even as a film – and not an adaptation – the relationships feel so extremely underdeveloped, it’s almost disappointing. I don’t know anything about Gogol and his girlfriends or Gogol and his friends. I don’t really know much about the marriage between Ashima and Ashoke and Sonia’s character just seems to be written in as little as possible, when in reality, she struggles with her cultural identity just as much as Gogol does.
It may seem as though I’ve been unfairly harsh on this movie which has nothing but positive reviews but in reality, it doesn’t hold up as an adaptation or as a movie. Especially when this story is really powerful for the immigrant community, the screenwriters and directors could’ve taken much more care in telling a compelling story (which The Namesake actually is). However, I have to say, with what the actors were given, the acting was phenomenal. I’m particularly impressed by Irrfan Khan and Tabu as Ashoke and Ashmia respectively. I think they make compelling parents for this story and Irrfan Khan is exactly how I imagined Ashoke from the novel. I also admire the cinematography, though there were too many scenes that felt like the movie was just constantly replaying and I didn’t care. The movie didn’t trust that the audience would remember scenes that it felt the need to constantly replay which contributes to the idea that there was really no emotional punch behind scenes that should stick with the audience. If a director feels the need to replay the same scene to pad the run time, they’re not telling the story properly.
This last part of the review is dedicated to one of the most complex characters who is woefully overlooked: Moushumi. In the book, she is this beautifully fleshed out character with a different immigrant experience. In contrast to Gogol, she was the character that I related to the most because her experience was similar to mine. Another place where this movie fails is promoting the idea that Gogol’s experience is a universal one. There are other experiences and even if the movie is exploring characters that are distant from their culture, she is an ideal character for this. Moushumi essentially distances herself from her culture and embraces a completely different one that is not American. This is such a common experience and the movie does a disservice by not telling it. Instead of padding the runtime with the same scenes, maybe taking the time to tell her story would’ve furthered some of the themes that the movie only half-heartedly discusses.
Overall, I don’t really like this movie. I think that many of its high ratings came from the fact that it’s an all South Asian cast and the performances are compelling. But, when considering that if the same movie was made with a different cast, the screenplay wouldn’t hold up, I don’t really think that this movie has anything to say for itself. It’s worth the watch if you’re a fan of the book, especially when it comes to scenes like the one where the quote for this post is from. But overall, this movie is a terrible adaptation and an only barely better movie.