A common question to ask and answer in the course of studying tanach is: Why is this book or portion called as it is? With the significance attributed to the torah's language and every word allotted great sanctity, the question is not so much Why was the name for the parsha chosen?, but more aptly How is it that this particular word or name became worthy of the privilege to represent a section of verses?
Mira Nair's film is called The Namesake which immediately focuses our attention toward the value of names and naming (and that theme is explored occasionally within the film), but to slip even further down the rabbit hole, the more intriguing area of discussion is why the film itself is named The Namesake.
Some films are optical illusions. They appear much larger and grander than they actually are. Sometimes this is due to a conscious trick, a manipulation perpetuated by a heady filmmaker or a pretentiously worded script. Other times the illusion is "real". Where the film manages to convert something technically small and simple into a textured mosaic of vibrant colors.
The Namesake is such an illusion. The film feels epic because it THOROUGLY depicts the evolution of a Bengali family from Calcutta circa 1960's (which ends up seeming like ancient history) to today's New York. We are allowed to witness the intimacy of the family's beginnings, steeped in culture, tradition, and devotion. Ashoke Ganguli and Ashima, a remarkable couple (mesmerizingly portrayed by Irfan Khan and Tabu, respectively) are introduced to us as individuals at the film's outset. Ashoke in a haunting scene aboard a train prior to an accident/miracle occurring in his youth. Ashima, as a shy, stunning, playful, innocent, luscious creature having her marriage arranged. The scenes are short but deeply telling. Short, deeply telling back stories – absolutely the stuff of optical illusions.
When the couple marries and move to Queens (yes, that Queens), we move with them. Their relationship is awkward, unfamiliar, blossoming, just as is our relationship to them. Nair purposefully paints India a embracing, real, alive, and splendiferous, while America is (and Americans are) soulless, desolate, clueless, and classless. It is a forgivable stroke of amateurism, likely more grounded in pride than spite.
Artists generally do not like to be constrained by established definitions. Nair and her cast, I'm sure, would tell you the film is "about" family – a universal theme. And The Namesake truly is a wonderful, touching, striking, film about a family. However, to dismiss Nair's achievement in terms of presenting a uniquely Bengali experience would be unjust – granted that true Bengali's will undoubtedly feel that it does not adequately represent as it is difficult to be one hundred percent authentic. Nair has elegantly dug the foundation for a more enlightened understanding of her culture through film. In a country where our appreciation for Indian Americans ("dots, not feathers" as we so sophisticatedly say) has been limited to Apu and David Letterman cab driver sketches, Nair's leap forward is monumental.
The second lap (and majority) of the film is surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) dedicated to the maturity and self-discovery of the Ganguli's eldest, a son, named Gogol by his father in reverence to Ashoke's favorite writer. Kal Penn plays Gogol and is recognizable from genre comedies such as Harold & Kumar and Epic Movie. Here, in a dramatic role, he ably serves. Though Ashoke and Ashima, and their complex union, are far more interesting character studies, we are steered to follow Gogol, his career, failed relationships, and inner turmoil.
We are cruelly removed from the two people we care most about to tag along with someone oblivious, narcissistic, and only occasionally well-meaning. Why? Because Nair's lesson surely is to cherish, not reject our origins, no matter how archaic or primitive they seem to our (version of) modern thinking. We see the light through Gogol's darkness. Perhaps also Gogol is of the utmost importance because he wears the namesake. "Gogol" means something in the cosmic sense, though the allusions remain on the periphery of Nair's film. We all came from Gogol's overcoat?, Ashoke says, but what does that mean to an audience member who never read the book.
This extraneous aspect of the film, while drawing one in, feels like the other kind of cinematic illusion – the not so impressive kind. Unless one were proficient in the work and thoughts of Nikolai Gogol, The Namesake is a film troublingly named.