The director of “The Namesake,” Mira Nair, seems to be making a deliberately foreign film in America. The film is based on the 2004 novel of the same title by Jhumpa Lahiri.
In the opening scene, a beautiful woman from India is singing. Her voice is breaking. You are reminded of a Black woman singing gospel. There is also other music that doesn’t remind you of gospel. The music we’re hearing is now part of what we know as “world music.” It’s very appealing.
The woman, Ashima (played by Bollywood star Tabu, who uses one name), will become a matriarch. We watch her become part of an arranged marriage and move to America with her husband, Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), who is first a college student and then a teacher. They are pioneers of what we now call the brain drain from India.
The movie spans a little more than a generation. When we see Ashima’s children, they are probably a little older than when we first met her.
Watching “The Namesake” in the midst of the debate on reforming immigration law, we would do well to use the movie as a springboard for open discussion. “The Namesake” doesn’t have the feel of a melting-pot film that some Hollywood films have. It is consciously unsettling as it expresses the not-so-secure footing of always being on the outside of that imaginary white America, even when the census figures contradict that image.
It is the 1980s. The couple has two children, who seem very American. They are gifted, smart, and hip. When the family returns from a trip and are met with racist graffiti at their cul-de-sac suburban house, we watch the son, Gogol (Kal Penn) go off, made bitter by something he maybe didn’t want to acknowledge as he raced to “fit in” to something that perhaps didn’t fit as well as he had imagined.
Gogol also contends with two romances. One is with a white woman from a well-to-do family that seems to wear as a badge of honor that they’re proud to accept an “Indian boy.”
The second romance is with an Indian woman. When we first see her, she is a geek. When we see her again five or six years later, she is both very sophisticated and very skillful at maneuvering. This also suggests she can fit into the reality in which she lives. The romance and marriage is arranged, and we see how it fits two points of view so both the young couple and their parents are satisfied.
“The Namesake” joins another standout film about immigration, “The Three Burials of Malequides Estrada,” a much different kind of immigration debate movie.
There have always been movies that reflect human rights issues within our borders. Wasn’t “Birth of a Nation” the racist reaction to Reconstruction in the South?
In the 1950s, the film, “Imitation of Life,” reflected the issues of the color line and Black and white relations as the civil rights movement was becoming a national reality. Now, “The Namesake” and “The Three Burials” explore immigration as the issue takes center stage in U.S. politics.
Kal Penn played Kumar in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (which the present writer has not seen). But if that was the starting point so that Kumar could be a “yo dude,” reflecting his assimilation, then in “The Namesake,” we watch his retransformation into an Indian warrior when faced with the reality of his father’s death and his coming to terms with the racism that he’s mostly ignored.
“The Namesake” suggests a reaction to the racism that just won’t be cut loose from a country/government/system that profits from it and becomes so blinded (not colorblind) by it, it can’t see its own demise.
The Namesake Directed by Mira Nair Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007 122 minutes, rated PG-13