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March 20, 2007 > The Namesake-A movie review

The Namesake-A movie review

By Steve Warga

Hollywood, you better watch out! Your very own namesake, India's Bollywood, has drawn a bead, aiming to shoot you off your perch at the top of the movie-making industry. And if The Namesake is any indicator, the pampered moguls and stars commanding Southern California's primo hilltop villas and beachfront mansions better pay attention.

Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding; Bend It Like Beckham), this latest Bollywood gem captivates viewers with a wealth of rich, human drama projected by some of the finest actors working on production sets anywhere in the world today.

Nair and screen writer Sooni Taraporevala employ some sleight-of-hand trickery, beginning with the title itself. We're led to believe this is the story of a first-born son of a Bengali couple transplanted to New York City before his birth. In the opening scenes, we learn how Indian custom dictates that newborns be named by a family elder and no one even thinks of rushing the process. But when parents Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (Irfan Kahn and Tabu) inform authorities it may take five or six years before Grandmother names the baby, they learn an American fact of life. To wit, no baby will be released from the hospital before a birth certificate is issued ... with a name on it.

So they name their son Gogol, after Ashoke's favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian born in 1809. The movie then proceeds to depict the boy's early embrace of his nickname even after he's eventually given Gogol's first name. All changes when he is the subject of implausible, yet relentless and wicked teasing in high school. This is a bit of a stretch in an otherwise coherent and persuasive script. By the time he enters college, Gogol wants to forget that name in favor of the much more American-sounding, "Nick."

It is this struggle with Indian tradition and American modernism that drives a plot offering little in the way of suspense, but much in the way of a human struggle for identity with the world at large. Gogol, as an a adult, is played by Kal Penn, a young, but well-traveled Bollywood actor who gained a cultish notoriety in 2004's off-beat film, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (a sequel is currently in production). Whether by design or accident, Penn projects a shallow, pouty, spoiled brat who can't see far enough past his outsized lower lip to appreciate the great love his parents hold for him.

Kahn and Tabu as Gogol's parents remind movie lovers why the best actors are called "stars." Separately and together, they glitter in their roles. Kahn, a native of Jaipur, India, is one of those immensely talented actors who struggle for years to catch a breakthrough role to superstardom. Before The Namesake, he had collected numerous lesser credits on TV and in the movies. It wasn't until his lead role in The Warrior (2001) that some international attention came his way. His part in this film will surely cement his status as one of the best.

Kahn artfully portrays a calm, reserved professor whose love for his children knows no limits of tolerance. He doesn't even consider that Gogol and his saucy sister, Sonia, will ever become anything less than traditional Bengali citizens of the world.

Don't go for popcorn during the scene where Kahn conspires to pry Gogol loose from his rich, liberal and very blonde paramour long enough to explain the story behind that quirky name his son so despises. It's the best of numerous examples of Kahn's remarkable ability to project deep emotions without the histrionics so many "stars" rely upon to cover their limited acting range. Kahn pulls it off time and time again with almost arrogant ease.

It is worth noting the outstanding work of make-up artists, Kelly Gleason and Heidi Kulow. They cleverly and gracefully walk the three lead characters' faces through 25 years of life as if those years actually passed during the film. Perhaps Nair's questionable usage of darkened camera filters aids the illusion of aging, but Gleason and Kulow still deserve kudos for their talented efforts.

For all of these pluses, however, the title of "brightest shining star" in this wonderful production clearly belongs to Tabu in the role of Ashima Ganguli, Gogol's mother. Despite rumors that she was Nair's third choice for the part, Tabu's powerful performance induced a distant whisper in this reviewer's ear, "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!" Not once did Tabu resort to cheap theatrics to draw viewer's attention, yet in every one of her scenes, she is the centerpiece; whether alone, or with one or two others, or in a room filled with rollicking relatives celebrating her son's wedding. Tabu's earthy beauty, poise and warmth come through every single time.

Maybe it was planned all along; or maybe it was only accidental, but ultimately, this movie belongs to Tabu as Ashima. It's Ashima's story; the story of a wife and mother living far from the land she loves because she loves her husband and children even more. Ashima did not share her husband's near reverence for the author Gogol, but she treasured the basis of that reverence and its revelation to viewers forms a poignant backdrop to the entire film.

When we learn why Ashoke bequeathed the name, Gogol, to his son, we learn why Ashima followed her husband to the strange land beneath Lady Liberty's torch of freedom. And we come to understand the clever sleight-of-hand at work in this rich drama. It's really Ashima's story we're paying to see and that story's telling is worth every cent of admission and much, much more.

Directed by Mira Nair
Rated PG 13

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