Thursday, April 12

The Namesake

After trying and failing to read Jumpha Lahiri's novel twice, the prose in which is direct and stylish, I was cheered to find that reviewers praised the movie. The fault of the novel lies with this reader. There's no accounting for taste.

This is a strange and wonderful movie. It should not work. But it does. It's Merchant Ivory meets Ang Lee (of The Ice Storm). The Namesake is Gogol Ganguli, son of Ashoke Ganguli and his wife Ashima. But his story pales in comparison to Ashima's, the story of a woman to whom things happen. "Strike one," calls the screenwriting line judge. The protagonist must act!

But Ashima's is the story of endurance and America is her gauntlet. Early on, she shrinks Ashoke's clothes when she takes it upon herself to do laundry without help the first day she's in the country. She learns to drive tentatively, and remains a lifelong nuisance on the road. And though their devotion is real, her children are strange, American creatures. Gogol, in particular, brings home a self-assured blond beauty who shows no sensitivity for the differences between her and him, and even less for his parents. These Ashima bears, not without comment, but without histrionics or depression.

The movie was once about Gogol and the mantle passed down to him by fathers and grandfathers and filliped by his father when he named him for the Russian novelist. "Was once," I say, because his drops to the background again and again. He comes of age sometimes clumsily, lurching from a happy-go-lucky love affair with brilliant, upper-class New York blonde to a marriage to a Bengali intellectual who will leave him for a French lover. He is always threading the needle of history with his own experience of Bengali-American family tradition, of Indians in America. The shadow of India is always looming behind him and bright, easy America is always before him.

When Gogol's story disappears, director Mira Nair brings the love story between Ashoke and Ashima to the fore. Neither the love story nor the coming of age story has an explicit, concrete goal, which screenwriting teachers tell you the character's gotta have. Ashoke and Ashima's implied goal is not to lose one another. Each is the other's tie to distant family and India. But they share the lonely pioneer days when the other made it bearable to call America home. The hollow echo in Ashima's life when Ashoke suddenly dies is loud and beautifully portrayed. Gogol's goal is not clear to him, but to the audience, it's obvious that he wants what his birth country has to offer. But he cannot bring himself to repudiate family and history. He and his sister move in with his mother after his father's death, if temporarily.

The movie is a triumph. It perks in memory like a story that's strange and familiar. Without pandering to a storytelling formula, a target audience, or even sniffing for a boomer audience to identify with Ashoke. It's the story of a family, pulled one way by American life and propelled in another by its inner springs. And that is the story of all families.