Saturday, June 28, 2014
(March 2007, U.S.)
Right around the time I went to see Mira Nair's THE NAMESAKE with my wife at a neighborhood independent movie theater on Long Island was about the same time in my life that I decided just how fed up and intolerable I'd become of mainstream Hollywood. For too damn long, I labored under the delusion that the only way to have a good time at the movies was to continue to pour my hard-earned time and money into franchise Hollywood crap at the nearest multiplex I could get to. So, in a strange way, investing time and money in an art film like THE NAMESAKE at a smaller theater was a form of cinematic soul redemption. Yes, I was beginning to the light, as it was! Praise the God of indie films, I was cured!!!
(insert head shake and laughter here!)
Okay, I'm over-dramatizing a bit, but I think those of you who try to take the art of film seriously can appreciate where I'm coming from. To see this rather simple story of an Indian family (from India!) adapting to life and culture in the United States of America was like a breath of fresh air during a decade of ongoing comic book franchise sequels. I realize, of course, that these wonderful art films can be found (almost) everywhere if you know where to look. You just have to lift your head up once in while and decide that you longer care what the X-MEN will be doing in their next film.
One of my first considerations for a film such as THE NAMESAKE is how American audiences can often get a more interesting and intriguing look at their own country when they're looking at it through the eyes of those from other countries. Consider for example that THE GODFATHER (1972) has been called one of the greatest American films of all time and it's about Italians! Through the eyes and ambitions of this simple and unassuming Indian family that begins it's journey in the United States in 1977 and raises their children under the American fashion and practices, one can appreciate this country from a different angle. When the film begins, a young man named Ashoke Ganguli (played by Irrfan Khan) has just survived a horrible train wreck and decides that life is meant to be traveled and lived and not merely seen through the pages and words of a book. Just a few years later, he and his new wife (through an arranged marriage) Ashima (played by a woman named Tabu) decide to leave India and their families to pursue the (so-called) American dream and its land of opportunities. Of course, it's not all glorious at first. How would you feel about leaving your homeland to go live in Queens near the 59th Street Bridge and then try to figure out the New York City subway system?? On the other hand, a young couple like this now gets to experience the joys of controlled heat, hot and cold running water whenever they want it and an interesting breakfast cereal called Rice Krispies (ain't America grand??)! Then, as predicted, the children arrive and here's where the subject of the title THE NAMESAKE becomes understood. At the time of the train wreck, Ashoke was reading a book called "The Overcoat" by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Through a series of miscues, their son's nickname becomes Gogol and eventually becomes his official birth name, an event which will shape many aspects of his life. Moving away from the parents a bit, the film now chronicles Gogol's cross-cultural experiences and his exploration of his Indian heritage, as the story shifts between the United States and India. He starts off as a typical lazy, pot smoking American teenager (played by Kal Penn) indifferent to his cultural background. He resents many of the customs and traditions his family upholds and doesn't understand his parents one bit (as most of didn't at that age. Hell, I still don't, but that's another matter entirely!). After a summer trip to India before starting college at Yale, Gogol starts opening up to his culture and becomes more accepting of it, much of it attributed to seeing the great Taj Mahal for the first time and deciding to pursue a career in architecture (big mistake, Gogol!!!). In the subject of love and romance, Gogol experiences his own share of experiences. During school, he's hopelessly infatuated with a beautiful American blonde girl who, if one reads outside the lines enough, is likely only with Gogol because he fills some need within her to experience an outside culture in her otherwise humdrum life of American privilege. She claims to care about Gogol, but fails to understand just who he really is. When Gogol decides to try the other route of marrying the nice Indian girl who knows how to deep fry samosas (those are delicious, by the way!) as he's likely expected to by his family, that goes sour when he discovers she's having an affair with her old lover.
As is almost typical with any story of self-discovery, the pivotal moment occurs with the death of a loved one. When Gogol's father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, the boy now becomes a man and the subject of his Indian heritage and culture becomes self-evident. Not to suggest that Gogol will return to Calcutta and become one with the people, but will rather embrace his past while holding onto the hopes of his future in a land filled with the glories and opportunities that are considered the true crust of this great land known as America. It's a great country, and like I said, sometimes you need to view it through the eyes of others who are trying to fit into it to see just what it all really means. Well, it makes sense on film, anyway.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Gogol Ganguli (after being told the origin of his name): "Baba, is that what you think of when you think of me? Do I remind you of that night?"
Ashoke Ganguli: "Not at all. You remind me of everything that followed. Everyday since then has been a gift...Gogol."