Based on the best-selling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake is a coming-of-age movie about a Bengali family that flees Calcutta for New York City. Saying goodbye to festive family gatherings and divinely spicy food, Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irfan Khan), recently joined by an arranged marriage, seek a fresh start in the land of opportunities. However, sometimes too many options on the menu can leave you with a headache and complete loss of appetite.
The Namesake, adapted by Sooni Taraporevala, beautifully captures the loneliness of the immigrant experience and how homesick a person can become after moving to another continent. When Ashima first arrives in the U.S., she feels like a square peg. A trip to the laundromat results in a closet full of shrunken clothes, a bowl of Rice Krispies is incomplete without peanuts and chili powder draped over it, and the concept of 24-hour gas is harrowing. She just can’t get settled, even as she realizes that her husband, a stranger at the time of their wedding, is really a wonderful guy and not half-bad company.
The movie’s strongest moments are expressed through the intricacies of their relationship—a revealing conversation here, a comforting nuzzle there. As time ticks on, however, they really aren’t the main focus of the story. That honor goes to their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), a shaggy-haired, joint-smoking American teenager who resents his family for naming him after a friendless, suicidal Russian author. He’d rather be called Nick, a name that doesn’t get him bullied in school and looks better on the birthday cakes he shares with his rich yuppie girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) at her family’s snazzy beach house.
The reality of him wanting to change his name is, of course, indicative of him wanting to distance himself from his roots, something that doesn’t exactly make his parents feel like doing the cha cha. It’s hard to watch partially because you feel sorry for his mom (who wishes he’d stop addressing them with “hey guys”) and partially because you realize how heinously you treated your own parents during those trying adolescent years.
Kal Penn is best known for his comedies (Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Van Wilder 2) but it’s hard to take him seriously as a dramatic actor in The Namesake—blame it on the fact that he acts an awful lot like Zach Braff. With his section of the story, we’re shown a rebellious, selfish kid who becomes a typical American and dismisses his family, while dating a few equally spoiled women. With his parents’ section, we’re shown something poignant, subtle and far less humdrum. In other words, their presence is missed whenever they drift off-screen.
Though it's a flawed effort, The Namesake is worth seeing for its unflinching depiction of family hardships and stunning cinematography. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), turning in her most personal film to date, captures so many gorgeous shots of India that it plays like the country’s greatest tourism commercial. After seeing the Taj Mahal and then having the lens zoom onto the umpteenth icicle dangling from a New York tree, it’s hard not to empathize with Ashima and dream of a one-way ticket back.