Kal Penn is best known as either a stoner (Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle) or a silent henchman (Superman Returns). He’s also the most recognizable actor in The Namesake. The performance of two actors less well-known to Western audiences, however, is the main reason to watch this interesting but flawed film.
American children are forever growing up and rebelling against the hopes, dreams, conventions, and goals of their parents. This truism can be even more pronounced when the parents are first generation immigrants who still hold to the customs and practices of their native land. The challenge presented by Bengali parents raising children born in America is at the heart of Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s popular 2004 novel.
The themes of The Namesake necessitate a lengthy scope and the movie stretches in time from the meeting of Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) and his soon to be wife Ashima (Tabu) in an arranged marriage to the marriage of their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), more than twenty years later. It also separates the movie into the life of Ashoke and the life of Gogol, with Ashima as the constant presence in both halves. The Ashoke dominated parts are far more interesting and when the movie is handed over to Penn’s Gogol, it makes less sense and becomes more pedestrian.
Khan, last seen as Captain in A Mighty Heart continues to impress with every movie. His presence makes the early scenes of Ashoke and Ashima trying to assimilate to American life and to each other (they were strangers before their marriage) a joy to watch. Ashima is homesick but finds her place is with this new man she comes to love, wherever that might be. The duo never forgets Calcutta and takes several trips back with their children, which highlight the differences, and similarities, between the two cultures.
When Gogol begins to make his own decisions, he rebels against his parents and their traditions. Taking up architecture rather than engineering, dating a blonde, rich WASP, and changing the name is father gave him, Gogol, now called Nick, charts his own course. This is also where the movie veers into a somewhat mundane story of a self-centered guy becoming less self-centered. The fact that he’s a Bengali isn’t the big issue; it’s just that he’s a kid who rejects his parents. It happens thousands of times a year, every year, in America.
Penn, while putting in a decent performance, is not served well by the material. It’s hard to figure out what Gogol/Nick wants. It looks at one point that he plans to embrace his heritage more fully, but his only activity is to shave his head and dump his nice, rich, white girlfriend, Max (Jacinda Barrett), for a slutty, rich, Bengali girl, Moushumi (Zuleikah Robinson).
Despite its flaws, the beautiful photography, much of it shot on location in Calcutta, and fine acting by Kahn and Tabu make The Namesake a film worth watching. Director Nair has a flair for bringing together cultures and handling each point of view fairly. She simply tries to do too much and, unfortunately, moves away from a great character and performance to a less interesting one in the second half of the movie. A full movie about Ashoke and Ashima trying to assimilate early in their lives would have been a much more satisfying experience.
The Namesake is very much an independent film and didn’t get a huge release in theaters. That hasn’t stopped the producers from putting a decent selection of extras onto this disc. Director/producer Mira Nair provides a nice commentary, balancing technical filmmaker details with the scenes in the movie that felt very personal to her. She has a comfortable presence and succeeds where many commentaries fail, adding to the overall viewing experience.
The disc lacks any sort of “making-of” featurette, which is disappointing. Much of the filming was done on location in India and seeing that aspect from behind-the-scenes would have been very educational. In place of this, there is a 30 minute discussion of the film by Nair called “The Anatomy of The Namesake.” Filmed during a class at Columbia University Film School, Nair discusses the nuts and bolts of independent movie making and brings along several of the movie’s crew to talk about their specific area. The whole thing is well done, if a little specific for the more casual viewer.
There is a five minute long segment called “Kolkata Love Poem.” It includes much of the second unit film shot for the movie in Calcutta set to Indian music. At least, that’s what I think it is, since there is no explanation or narration. It doesn’t relate to the film other than showing more of the city than you see in the brief movie segments. Also, the photographs that Nair used as inspiration for some of her shots in the film are shown in a segment called, cleverly, “Photography as Inspiration.” Each photograph segues into the scene from the movie and the parallels are obvious.
Since this is a Fox Searchlight release, the Fox Movie Channel did an “In Character” featurette on Kal Penn. He talks briefly about the movie and his character, but it’s of little interest as he covers only the most superficial aspect of the movie. Another short extra includes three deleted scenes. All three last a grand total of two minutes combined and two of the three are about 15 seconds each. Nair does provide an optional commentary but doesn’t have time to say much.
The only other item is the movie’s trailer and the trailers for some other Fox Searchlight releases. The extras aren’t overwhelming, but are not bad considering the size of the movie itself. The transfer is nice and the sound is clear. Not a great movie or disc, but good enough if you are interested in this type of assimilation and rebellion story.