Namesake was one movie I was waiting to watch. Last summer when I visited Kolkata, coincidently, Mira Nair too was shooting her film there. Though we never met, I was aware of this fact all the time during my stay in that city. We both were exploring the city in our own ways.
Though I hadn't read Jhumpa Lahiri's novel on which Mira's film is based (I only read it just before watching the film--which made my viewing of this film a rich experience) I was curious about the film because Mira had decided to make a film out of it--imagine putting aside projects like filming of Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist and the remaking of Munnabhai MBBS with Chris Tucker, to film Jhumpa's novel. There must be something compellingly good about it.
That apart, I am an admirer of Irfan Khan's acting. I have liked him from his television days, and his understated performances always impress me. He has a certain way of delivering his lines which I find naturalistic, non-filmy. He has a great body language. Tabu is fine--She is like the Nargis of our times. When she was making her debut with Prem (along with Anil Kapoor's brother), all we knew about her was that she was Farah's sister. I certainly did not anticipate that she would turn out to be such a good actress. Now perhaps Farah is known as Tabu's sister. Both Tabu and Kareena have surprised me, for the exact reasons, though I would admit that Kareena looks a little too glamourous for her roles. Not her fault, and I don't think she can help it.
It was interesting to see how Mira had reinvented the novel (along with her scriptwriter friend Sooni Tarapoorwalla), how she had made it more dramatic, fit for a movie experience. While the novel begins with Ashima (Tabu) starting her life in the US, a demure pregnant Bengali lady, one night making jhaal mudhi in her kitchen, the film goes for a real dramatic start. You see Ashoke Ganguly's steel box being carried by a coolie in Calcutta's Howarh station. Ashoke is on his way to Jamshedpur to spend his holidays with his grandfather. On the train, he meets a Bengali moshai--a man who had spent two years in the UK--who advises him to pack his bags and see the world. "You'll never regret it," says the gentleman. Then we see Ashoke reading Gogol's collected stories--a book miserably tattered--just as described in the novel. Soon, the train meets with an accident. Everything goes black. The scene changes. We are introduced to Calcutta in all its myriad colours and through the city we get to meet one of its charming denizens, Ashima (Tabu). Just before that we are shown fleetingly that Ashoke did not die. But how, this was not explained at that point of time. And there lies the mystery of Gogol's Overcoat (his famous short story that has been referred to again and again in the text and the film).
Why did Mira choose this event to dramatise her story? There is a reason, and we'll come to it soon.
Decades later, when Ashoke gifts Gogol's collected stories to his son, Gogol aka Nikhil (Kal Penn) on his graduation (in the novel, on one of his B'Days, if my memory serves me right), he tells him: "We have all come out of Gogol's Overcoat." And Nikhil is like, what do you mean Baba? "When you grow up, you will understand," says Ashoke.
After Ashoke's death and Nikhil's realisation that his wife is having an affair with a French guy, Nikhil (Gogol) remembers what his father once told him. "We have all come out of Gogol's Overcoat. You will understand it when you grow up."
The film had started with Ashok's train journey, with Gogol's book in his hands, and the sudden realisation that one needed to explore the world, as opposed to what his grand father used to say: Reading books is travelling, only without moving an inch."
The film ends with Nikhil travelling on a train, realising what his father had told him about Gogol, about exploring the world. That's where's the film's beginning and end tie up beautifully, like a narrative coming full circle in its theme. The search for a name and identity, the search for life and love in an alien land, becomes a metaphor for the immigrant experience too. Gogol had spent much of his life outside his land of birth, Ashoke had told Nikhil-- a fact that emphasizes the immigrant aspect of the story.
Gogol and his story, The Overcoat, also emerge as major metaphors in the film. That story had saved Ashoke's life, and that's how the entire family had come out of Gogol's Overcoat.
The movie has some very powerful scenes. I can never forget the scene when Ashima comes to know of Ashoke's death in far off Cleveland and does not how to react. Her cries outside the house, amid the bright Christmas lighting, her lonliness in the moment of her greatest grief, is as poignant as it could get. It shows the poverty of relationships in an immigrant land. In times of sadness, you need a shoulder to cry, and you find none. That is so heart-rendering, so inhumane of a society.
Irfan is brilliant in some scenes: One is when he calls Ashima from the hospital just before his death, and the other is when he insists that Ashima must say I love You to him in the Victoria Memorial park.
Some of his scenes with Kal Penn are also very good. Strangley though, in the opening credits of the film, Kal Penn's name comes first. I think it should have been in this order: Tabu, Irfan Khan, and then Kal Penn. Nevertheless, it attests to the richness of the narrative that it is difficult for one to pinpoint the protagonist of this film.
The film is well-shot. Some shots have been framed in the tradition of Satyajit Ray's. Like the shot of Ashima lying on the bed in her New York apartment. The shot is an extreme close up of half of her face, her large eye most prominent, somewhat hidden by her arm. That is classic Ray. Nitin Sawhney's background score is competent, although at times it sounded like a documentary film's scrore.
I have, however, two problems with the film.
When she was making the film, Mira wanted to make it a portrait of two cities--Calcutta and New York--as well. While she has captured the colours of Calcutta beautifully, she has not shown New York that much sympathetically. Except for the bridges and the yellow cabs, the cities have nothing in common. In terms of crowd, being cavernous and crumbling, and human interactions, the two cities come across as diametrically opposite.
The other problem that I have is with the movie's transitions. One moment a characater is in Cal, the next moment he/she is in NY. I think she wanted to keep the pace faster and didn't want to use captions like 6 months later or 12 months later. But this kind of cut-to-cut editing can leave some viewers confused. Thankully, I had read the novel, so I knew the transitions. But what about others?
These minor hiccups apart, Namesake is definitley one of Mira's best films. If you haven't seen it, you should. And if you have, please share with me what you think of it. If you have a heart, you will come crying out of the theatre. That, at least, was my experience.