April 07, 2007
Mira Nair's "The Namesake" - An Identity Entrapped?
"What's in a name?" Apparently plenty, according to Mira Nair's movie, "The Namesake". A name for Indians is apparently a hope, an expectation, perhaps a trap, even a blessing; something which connects the past with the present. However, what happens when this connect goes unrecognized or unacknowledged by an individual? The Namesake explores the conflict that arises when immigrant Indian parents presume or perhaps hope that their children, born outside of India, recognize this connect. Nair is not breaking new ground making a movie around a theme that presents the conflict of values between two generations in an immigrant Indian family. I am told that in recent years there have been innumerable films coming out of Bollywood (in Hindi) that explore this theme. Mira Nair has portrayed an Indian immigrant's struggle to hold on to what he deems represents his identity (in this case his name) in a foreign land. However, a non Indian audience may not be as sensitive to some of the cultural nuances presented in the movie that contribute significantly to the understanding of the conflict; like taking off ones shoes when entering a home, the process of selecting a name for the newly born, the son having to shave off his hair after the death of the father. All these events have a deeper meaning than the one that a western audience may take from it.
Who did Mira Nair have in mind as her audience when she made the film? Will ' The Namesake' have the same impact and invoke the same empathy in India as it did in the hearts of all immigrant Indians in the USA? Which makes me wonder if this is a nation specific conflict, one lacking universal appeal. If indeed it is, then would Ms. Nair have been better off making her movie a Bollywood presentation?
The movie is based on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, The Namesake. Ms. Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist from India who is renowned for her short stories. I read her novel, The Namesake, a couple of years ago, and it did not make an impact. The writer introduced and abandoned some very strong points of interest; for example the reference to Gogol, and his story 'The Overcoat'. For some reason Ms. Lahiri did not elaborate upon why the father chooses to call his son Gogol. As a reader I felt cheated, even mislead after I finished reading the novel.
Despite all of the above, the movie is definitely worth watching for the outstanding performances by the three main characters; the father (Irfan), the mother (Tabu), and the son (Kal Penn) who put up some heart-rending scenes that had me all choked up a couple of times during the movie. Irfan especially, playing the role of a father who though a man of few words says it all with his abrupt body language, did an excellent job.