Identity is at heart of immigrant experience

Special to The Times

Indian-born, New York-based director Mira Nair has repeatedly enacted tales of culture clash in her films but never with quite as much warmth and thoughtfulness as she brings to “The Namesake.”

Coming off a botched literary adaptation -- the garbled, proto-feminist take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” -- she turns her attention to a novel that is not only more manageably scaled but also, for this expatriate filmmaker, surely closer to home. Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 book-club favorite spans decades, continents and generations, but it’s also an intimate, melancholy look at the isolation and disorientation common to the immigrant experience.

The saga of the Ganguli family begins with the arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta between studious engineer Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and shy classical singer Ashima (Tabu). The newlyweds relocate immediately to New York, where Ashoke is pursuing his master’s degree. Strangers to each other and to their surroundings, they gradually discover a tender mutual rapport and even an ambivalent comfort in this foreign land. Before long they have a son, a daughter and a house in the suburbs.


The naming of the Gangulis’ first-born provides the metaphorical backbone of the book and the movie. Pressured to pick a name before leaving the hospital -- contrary to Bengali convention, which dictates the use of a familial “pet name” and later the adoption of an official “good name” -- they settle on Gogol, an homage to Ashoke’s favorite author.

In due course, Gogol (played from young adulthood on by Kal Penn) finds his name all too distinctive and opts instead for Nikhil (often conveniently Westernized as Nick). The tensions that bedevil the characters in “The Namesake” are textbook conflicts of melting-pot America. Gogol’s two names are an unsubtle but potent symbol of his double identity. He’s a typical American teen, ritually distancing himself from parental influence, but as with many second-generation immigrants, his youthful rebellion can spiral into the rejection of an entire way of life.

Later, as a twentysomething Manhattan architect, he finds that his unresolved sense of identity is affecting, among other things, his love life. The doting WASP girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and her snobbish moneyed parents represent ultimate assimilation, but he settles down with a mirror image of himself: a modern, independent Bengali woman (Zuleikha Robinson) who naturally brings her own baggage to their relationship.

The muted elegance of Lahiri’s prose appears to have had a bracing effect on Nair’s filmmaking, which has never been a model of economy. The film is full of deft visual cues that underscore its themes of connection and dislocation. Shots of the Queensboro Bridge in New York are rhymed with those of the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta. Several significant scenes take place in the in-between spaces of airport terminals.

The book is driven more by incident than by plot, and Nair’s largely faithful adaptation suffers at times from an episodic choppiness. Still, the lack of obvious narrative arcs is refreshing. Instead of melodramatic implausibilities what we get is the commonplace stuff of life: marriages and breakups, births and deaths.

Bollywood veterans Khan and Tabu, as the elder Gangulis, tap into considerable reserves of depth and subtlety, and this should be a breakout role for Kal Penn, holding the dramatic center of a film for the first time. His Gogol is a funnier and more believable creation than the book’s, in part because to play the teen malcontent, the actor has shrewdly imported aspects of the pothead persona he popularized in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

Despite being rooted in knotty issues of identity, Lahiri’s novel forgoes didacticism in favor of vivid portraiture. Nair and her uniformly superb cast take the same tack: The characters are individuals before they are emblems.

“The Namesake.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images and brief language. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.