Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Namesake'--the movie

Only last week did Melvin and I, busy parents that we are, watch 'Namesake' the movie. (Wait, I am not completely honest here. We are not that busy. The truth is really embarrassing: we just can't get seem to reclaim the TV/DVD player from our kids and we've been reduced to watching cartoons aimed at 3- to 5-year old kids. But before you judge us, let me just say that this has done wonders to my reading habit.)

So nearly a year after the movie, directed by Mira Nair and based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, was released, we rented a DVD and watched with abated breaths. When I read the book a few years ago, I had thought that it was reasonably good--not great--and definitely not the kind that Iwould revisit. But being Mira Nair fans, we wondered what kind of magic Nair would bring to the product. But by the end of the movie, I was left wondering, "What was the fuss all about?"

In my opinion, one of the weaknesses of the book--the lack of a central plot--is more glaring in the movie. The entire experience amounted to nothing more than a movie-version of a long, rambling tea-time conversation that started with the life of the parents before drifting off into the as-yet-uninteresting life of their son. In the absence of plot, Ashoke Ganguli's revelation about his emotional connection with the son's name, has been given the status of a pseudo-plot. If I recall the book correctly, there was none of that filmy drama between father and son that got built into the movie.

In the book Lahiri lets the reader know, in a sequential manner, in her characteristic, detailed prose, Ashoke's emotional tie to Gogol the writer; the selection of 'Gogol' as a pet, not real, name for his son; the accident of the missing mail; the resignation with which Ashima and Ashoke accept the 'renaming' of their son by his kindergarten teachers. The name issue was an important feature to understanding the Ganguli family's (not just Gogol's) life and experiences in America, but there was no mystery surrounding it. So I didn't particularly appreciate all the vapid secrecy that was built around it in the movie. I also got the feeling that it was set up to make one cry with Gogol, while he learns of his father's past near-death experience, but, watching Kal Penn's reaction, I only felt deflated.

Ironically, for a character that is so obsessed, tortured and defined by the arbitrariness of names, Gogol Ganguli exhibited absolutely no awareness when he advised his future (Caucasian) brother-in-law to address all the sari-clad, middle-aged Bengali women by the generic label "aunty." "That will keep them happy," says he non-chalantly. As someone who is on the cusp of being called aunty (even though I don't feel like an aunty) by hordes of unreflecting kids, I want to officially register in writing my protest at this one-sided and selective understanding of the complexities of personal identity and nomenclature.

An aside: Amardeep exhibits an academic's insight into the name's issue here.

There was plenty of good acting by Tabu and Irfan Khan but the same cannot be said of Kal Penn, the most recognized (in North America) name and face among all those actors. But considering the alternative--apparently the first actor for Gogol's part on Nair's wishlist was Abhishek Bachchan!--I am all for Kal Penn, and only for Kal Penn (Can you see a pouting, tortured AB, Jr. in an American highschool classroom scene?). What was Mira Nair thinking? Is she selling her soul? Is she ready to give up all that she stood for? Doesn't she know that she is several cuts above that meat industry?

1 comment:

kallu said...

Finally, I've found someone who agrees with me - that the Namesake was so -so and nothing much to make a movie about.
Terrific incisive writing Malathi.