The Namesake (2006): 4/5

The Namesake is based on the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri. The novel and film both follow the Ganguli family.

The budding Ganguli family leaves the hospital after Gogol is born (via Guardian UK)

Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) are a couple, married after negotiations by their parents, who have moved to America for Ashoke’s studies. The couple decides to stay in America rather than moving back to India. They have two children, Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). While Ashima and Ashoke remain fairly traditional and stand by their Indian heritage, their two children struggle with their identities and want to see themselves as typical Americans.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is near-perfect, and I recommend that anyone who hasn’t read it yet, please do before seeing the film. It’s a powerful story of loss, family and growing up. Lahiri packs the novel with motifs and little references that add such depth to its meaning.

Unfortunately, some of those motifs and references are lost in the translation to film. Having read the novel previously, I still kept these ideas in mind while watching, which I think helped me enjoy the film more.

On a brighter note, the film is still a very good adaptation of The Namesake. Many of the scenes are well-translated from the book, though some detail is lost, probably due to time constraints.

For instance, there is a scene where Ashima is about to meet Ashoke and his family for the first time. Before joining them, she notices Ashoke’s shoes in the hallway and tries them on. In the larger scope of their culture and the novel, this scene is quite significant (though I don’ t want to give too much away!) and Tabu performs it beautifully.

Though very well-done, this scene and the film as a whole weren’t quite how I pictured them in my head while reading, which is often the case with book adaptations. Irrfan Khan was perfectly cast as Ashoke based on the mini-movie I already had going in my head, but Tabu was a quite different Ashima than I pictured. She seems more secure in the film, and longs for her home in a much more subtle way than her character comes across in the book. Still, both Khan and Tabu give amazing performances.

The Ganguli family, now older and with a second child, visits India. (via moviefone)

A surprisingly effective performance is also given by Kal Penn. Viewers may recognize him as “the Indian guy from Harold & Kumar,” which made me very skeptical of him as the focal character. However, he pulls it off well.

In fact, he accomplishes something that the book didn’t quite succeed in. Penn makes me hate the teenage/college-age Gogol so much that by the end of the film, his transformation seems even more emotional and brilliant than it did in the novel.

Another element that the film accomplishes just as well as the book is realism. Though the film is a bit slow-paced, it works in this case, because it really shows you how the Ganguli family experiences American life. This is particularly apparent in the first half of the film, as the two children are growing up. Bits and pieces of what may seem like insignificant events in their daily lives are shown.

The second half of the film takes a bit of a turn. The pace picks up slightly as an emotional event rocks the Ganguli family. The effect is quite an emotional one (especially for those who have read the book). I hate to be so vague but this event was very much a shock to me when I read the book for the first time, so I’ll leave you with this: It’s heartbreaking, but very impactfully portrayed. An interesting technique of mixing past and present scenes is used throughout the rest of the film, which only adds to the beauty of this portion.

Though I wouldn’t rate the film version as  highly as the novel, it is still one of the most successful novel adaptations I’ve ever seen, especially in recent years. Read, analyze and absorb the book first to give yourself more insight into the Ganguli family — but the film is definitely worth watching in conjunction with it.