Theatrical Review: Mira Nair
's latest film, a translation of Jhumpa Lahiri's emphatically praised book The Namesake, caps off a theme that has been heavy in her work thus far: assimilation and cultural duty. Though she's been making films since the mid-'80s, Nair didn't attain commercial attention until 2002 with Monsoon Wedding, an exuberant comedy about a New Delhi wedding between a woman who just ended an affair with a married producer and a native of India prospering in Texas. The modest hit gave her enough clout to secure her a director's chair on the last adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, an England-based novel given an Indian flair on the big screen.
Monsoon Wedding turned the slow grinding of cross-culture gears into a comfy piece of visual pop. It confronted the situation but seemed complacent enough to leave the confrontation in simple, digestible terms; a stylized My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In contrast, Vanity Fair, originally a satire of England's manners and traditions, was taken deep into the mystic, hitting its most absurd note when Reese Witherspoon
seductively belly danced with a tribe of women from India. Though it was easy to see where these moments were pointing, The Namesake gives Nair a broad canvas and a more concise frame to study the American identity and its effects on other cultures without any affectation or pretense. Article continues below
Gogol (Kal Penn
), born in the U.S. from two immigrant parents, has assimilated the culture given to him. His father, Ashoke (the brilliant Irfan Khan
), doesn't mind his son's American disposition so much but can't comprehend the levity he shows towards the erstwhile traditions of his ancestors. It's the unexpected death of a family member that brings Gogol, named after a Russian eccentric, back to his ancestral heritage. It also perpetuates his growing displeasure with his white girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett
) for whom his mother, Ashima (the radiant Tabu), appropriately feigns acceptance.
Moving fluidly from the sweltering railways and breezy domiciles of Calcutta to the desolate snowfall of New York City, The Namesake seems to be most concerned with American identity. To Ashoke, American cultureias something he can learn and pick the ripest ideas from. To Gogol, his tradition is Western culture and his attempt to learn his parents' culture becomes a fumbling, arduous endeavor. When Gogol leaves Maxine, his next relationship is with his wife Moushami (Zuleikha Robinson
), whom he thought snotty when they first met in his teen years (their parents attempted to set them up) but now is a fully Americanized woman with business suits and a taste for upscale bars, white friends, and adultery.
Gogol is one of those great lost souls, unable to separate his identity from his current state of existence but never happy with being pointed one way or another. Nair foregoes portrait-detailing to turn his life into an intricate landscape of ideologies and beliefs, being ever so careful to never step on a soapbox or raise her voice above a lilting coo. Though tonally rocky after the first hour, Penn's restrained performance allows for a distinct concentration on mood that elevates the film above Nair's past entertainments. Here, the director has found her most apt presentation of the American way, its blemishes and beauty marks completely intact.