Adapted for the screen by Sooni Taraporevala from Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, is the story of the Ganguli family who emigrate from India to the United States in the 1970s. Dad, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), arrives as an engineering graduate student. While completing his Ph.D., he returns to his native country for an arranged marriage to the beautiful Ashima (Tabu), whom he has not previously met. The two ultimately settle in a leafy university town where they raise two 100 percent American children. We normally associate culture clash as strife among neighboring enclaves. Here it takes place inside one household and is complicated by the fact that it simmers on low heat in a home full of love.
The Namesake is spread over a quarter century and tries to tell more story than it can render adequately in the time of a conventional feature. After Ashoke and Ashima arrive in America, the film gradually shifts focus to their son Gogol (Kal Penn) as he moves from high school to architecture studies at Yale, the first years of a promising career and his voyage through the Scylla and Charybdis of romances with Maxine Ratliff (Jacinda Barrett), the wealthy blond American girl he meets at school, and Moushimi Mazumdar (Zuleika Robinson), the Bengali linguist his parents prefer.
The lives of human beings are rich enough that the story of any one of the many characters we meet here merits a movie unto itself. Gogol's complicated relationship with his father is plenty of material for a rewarding film. Gogol's desire to please his parents is certainly a factor in the troubles that arise in his relationship with Maxine and his subsequent involvement with Moushimi, but Gogol's romantic entanglements need a story that focuses on them alone. And, for that matter, as the film evolves from the story of an immigrant's love for a son he raises to become a foreigner in his own house into the story of the son's halting relationship with his parents' alien culture, we leave the former not satisfied that we've explored all the illuminating intricacies residing there. Gogol is an interesting enough character. But aside from the dark skin of his ethnic heritage, he's routinely a regular American guy with all the advantages of a middle-class rearing and a stellar education. His parents' Indianness provides additional background, but his romantic meanderings aren't really all that different from the paths most young people take on the way to commitment. In these regards, Ashoke's story and that of his relationship with Ashima is the more intriguing, and we fret when it is too quickly left behind.
Still, The Namesake generates staying power in a number of its passages. The script smartly sidesteps any temptation to turn the complications of its characters into villainy. We aren't ever sure that Maxine is the right woman for Gogol, but not because she ever says or does something insensitive or selfish. When Moushimi and Gogol face the possibility that their relationship isn't working, she says, "It is not enough that I'm Bengali." He counters correctly, but perhaps not entirely truthfully, "That's not why I love you."
Emotional communication is a key theme. Ashoke comes from a culture that makes him uncomfortable with outward manifestations of emotion. He loves Gogol with his entire life force, but never says so, and it's a tribute to Kahn's performance that we know Ashoke's feelings without his stating them. Gogol doesn't question his father's love, but neither does he understand its ferocity. The relationship between Ashoke and Ashima is similarly restricted. They were chosen for each other, but ultimately we know that they have fallen intensely in love. But in perhaps the film's best scene, Ashoke asks Ashima why she assented to the marriage. Demurely, eyes averted, she says, "I liked your shoes." And then darting an upward glance at her husband, she adds, "Do you want me to say I love you -- like the Americans?" Bravo to all that. And bravo to the film's passionate understanding of the power of family connection. Mira Nair is wise in many things, even if here she would have been wiser to have focused on less in order to reveal more.