Packed with female book club members, a screening of Mira Nair's The Namesake left no doubt about the film's target audience. If anyone's going to flock to this warm and likable tale, it's going to be women, yet it seems a pity to confine the movie behind the bars of a chick flick tag. Dividing its time between the fortunes of a Bengali immigrant to New York and those of her anxiously Americanized son, The Namesake combines the intimate pleasures of a family saga with a finely sustained inquiry into the difficult balance between separation and integration that shapes the lives of first-generation migrants and their children in crucially different ways.
This is home turf for Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, two smart and saucy South Asian expatriates who previously collaborated on the exuberant charmer Mississippi Masala, an unexpected hit whose sneaky gift for laying the burden of weirdness on the host culture helped put Nair on the map as one of a growing band of exponents of the Asian immigrant experience. Peppered with ancient Indian music and Asian Cool pop, The Namesake carries faint echoes of the carnal physicality that makes Nair's more lightweight movies so much fun to look at: Monsoon Wedding was a dandy piece of froth, and Vanity Fair survives only on its looks.
Based on a first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies won her a Pulitzer, The Namesake is a quieter, more mature work. Shot with muted elegance by Frederick Elmes, the movie is a study in hot and cold as it moves between the heat and dust of Calcutta and the ice and slush of Queens, New York, where Ashima (played by the Indian star Tabu, a ravishing presence at once sexy and maternal) lands with her new husband, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), a cerebral engineer she knows only from their arranged marriage. Still, their love blossoms as lonely, isolated Ashima, trapped in the shock of the new, grudgingly makes concessions to this strange American world of washing machines and overflowing supermarkets. Soon the couple moves to the suburbs, where they become part of the Indian diaspora community that maintains its links to the old country while prospering in the new.
Not so her restless son, hell-bent like his sister on becoming a hip American. Best known for his antic turn in the comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Kal Penn tones down the goofiness just enough to lend an air of pathos to this gangly outsider who's stranded between two worlds, neither of which feels like home. Like many children of immigrants, he channels all his conflicts and the resentment he feels toward his loving, staid parents into a profound loathing for his foreign name. To make matters worse, poor Gogol Ganguli isn't even named for an Indian hero, but for the paranoid, friendless Russian author of Dead Souls. Unaware of the pivotal significance of that name in his gentle father's life story, Gogol rushes into the arms of the first bohemian shiksa (juicy Jacinda Barrett) who floats into his orbit in Manhattan. Things don't go well, but even after a family crisis brings Gogol's roots back into focus, even after his rediscovery of a glam Indian intellectual (Zuleikha Robinson) he'd met in his teens when she still looked like Ugly Betty, his troubles stubbornly continue to pile up.
Though The Namesake never fully resolves the episodic formlessness of Lahiri's novel, there's method and meaning in its loose ends, which both define the predicament of the second-generation immigrant and confer on him a strategic advantage in navigating the fluid boundaries of modern urban life. When we leave Gogol, he's still figuring out the steps to the immigrant's eternal dance between tradition and modernity, between adaptation to the new world, defensive reactivity to the old, and the longing for roots. Only now he understands that the dance never ends, that it has its own grace and its own benediction.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.