Namesake's DC Debut
"Hurry up, I want to get a good seat," a young South Asian woman urged her lagging companion as she crossed New York Avenue in order to reach the entrance to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in downtown DC. "I'm so excited to see this film."
The excitement was palpable in the air long before the lights dimmed and the opening credits to Mira Nair's latest film flashed across the screen in NMWA's auditorium. More than 200 people, mostly young professionals of South Asian descent, gathered on a brisk Wednesday night to catch Nair's long-awaited adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's celebrated 2004 coming of age novel, The Namesake.
Nair's trademark techinques--evocative cinematography, eclectic soundtrack, and unique casting--all appear in her latest work, a poignant, and often humorous, account of the lives of an immigrant Bengali couple whose American-born son struggles to realize his cultural identity.
Actor Kal Penn (Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) takes a decidedly more serious turn here as an actor in his portrayal of Gogol Ganguli, the Ivy League-bred young man who seeks to shed the unusual birth-given name of his infancy, and in the process, his father's own complex and significant past.
Gogol chooses, post-college, to hide his Caucasian girlfriend from his parents, not visit home very often, even spend one birthday weekend lounging at his girlfriend's WASP-y parents’ vacation home without so much as a thought to phone home.
Life-changing events force Gogol to reexamine his own identity, however, and embark upon new paths as the themes of loss, discovery and naturally the immigrant experience recur throughout the film.
For Monsoon Wedding, Nair's colorful 2001 film about a large family in India preparing for a young woman's nuptials, Nair (pronounced Nye-air) largely drew upon members in her own family to shape the film's central characters. In deciding to make the film version of The Namesake, Nair was also inspired by personal events in her own life, when she picked up the book shortly following the sudden and tragic loss of her mother-in-law to medical malpractice.
“It felt like Jhumpa had understood exactly what I had been going through," she told a rapt audience following the screening. A short nine months later, her crew began filming. In order to focus on her project, Nair even turned down an offer to direct the latest Harry Potter installment.
“My mantra is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will tell them," she later told me over the phone. “I’m very much a lover of original screenplays, but if a novel really gets me, I’m there.”
Despite battling the flu, Nair indulged the audience at the screening with nearly a half-hour of questions and answers ("When I walked into the theater, I was so energized!" she said later), candidly explaining her directorial choices, including why she chose to omit large chunks of the book (it does, after all, span 30 years and two continents).
She also divulged some juicy production trivia (the actress who plays immigrant Ashima is actually a major Bollywood babe back in India, the infant who plays baby Sonia is Jhumpa Lahiri's actual daughter) and professed her love for the aesthetic ("I'm a visualist," she asserted.)
Nair hones the camera frequently in on trees, I thought, perhaps because Boston is just a leafy city. Then I discovered she's an avid gardener.
In person, the director is as colorful and vibrant as her films, with a deep, rich voice that evokes multiple continents. Her own background as a Delhi native, then later a Harvard undergrad, provided a crucial foundation to the film, she said, whether depicting a funeral ceremony on the banks of the Ganges or the harsh, bleak winters of New England.
The film is indeed an amalgamation of South Asian and American cultures, taking us to Calcutta, Boston, New York and at times, back to India. The film can be funny, though some inevitable clashing of cultures scenes come across as a bit heavy-handed, if not predictable. It also took some time getting used to watching Kal Penn in a serious role, and not just the hilarious pot-loving collegiate he plays--no, owns-- in Harold and Kumar. But I know that's not fair...
Nonetheless, The Namesake is also quiet and serene in parts, such as when a single, wordless glance exchanged between young newleyweds in itself channels potency and sensuality.
“The ellipses…that is the core of the film,” Nair said.
The Namesake will be released in theaters nationwide March 9.