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The Namesake movie Review

March 26, 2007

The film is based on a novel of the same name. The novel is by Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short story collection had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The movie? Well, it is Hollywood movie with a Bollywood feel. Not just because it is directed by a woman of Indian origin, but also because the film (which is in English), tells the story about an Indian Bengali family who migrates to the US. Nothing dramatic happens, and the crises are normal family crises. So what is so special about the movie? Well, as Mira Nair unfolds the saga of the Ganguli family over two generations, she brilliantly brings out the clash of cultures between the east and west.

The movie is about relationships – the relationship between husband and wife, brother and sister, child and parent, and its amazing that Mira Nair understands the deep bonds that Indian families share. She shows how love develops between husband and wife although when they marry they are strangers. A love which they never show to anyone else, or even to themselves…in fact what Nair reveals through her cinema is so profound that it moves one to tears. And she makes the viewer laugh too, just by showing normal family banter. The fact that she can make the viewer laugh and cry with her characters, and that too just by the telling of a simple story reveals her brilliance.
The movie moves slowly lovingly over each scene and the scenes are amazingly true to life. Whether its a scene on a Kolkata street, or one in the United States, the ambience, the atmosphere, the scent of the people, everything is brought out so vividly…so perfectly. There are no words for it all really. Its like seeing life unfold before you…only more vividly. Awesome cinema.

The performances of Irfan Khan and Tabu (who play husband and wife) remain with you long after the movie is over. Brilliantly understated performances that convey a wide range of emotions – Tabu plays the role of the shy housewife who finds her wings and Irfan, a professor who is obsessed with a Russian author – Gogol, so obsessed in fact that he names his son after him (That is why the movie is called Namesake). Kal Penn plays Gogol and frankly I didn’t like him in the film. I found his acting average. I guess he paled in comparision to Tabu and Irfan Khan.

The sex scenes make the film stand apart from a Bollywood movie. They were done tastefully and naturally. And they were there.

I wished Mira Nair had revealed the different side of Kolkata too however. The only thing we see is Kolkata’s seamy side, the poverty, the grime, and human misery complete with rickshaws being pulled by human beings. This has now been banned in Kolkata, but then ofcourse the story took place in the seventies and the rickshaws were very much there then. But Kolkata has its bright side and she could have shown the protagonist (who is from a lower middle class family) yearn for a better life by seeing the bright side of Kolkata…I don’t know. I am not a film maker and don’t know whether this was possible without veering away from the novel. I just felt that the film reinforces the stereotypical image of Kolkata as a seamy city. There was a sight seeing tour of the Taj Mahal and this seemed artificial, as if the director was telling the viewer something – and it was not her characters experiencing it.

I didn’t like this movie as much as I liked Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. But I guess the subject was such. There is a gloomy feel to the movie and the end is depressing, although not tragic.

Anyone looking for action will be disappointed. The first half of the movie is slow and one wonders whether it is getting anywhere. The pace picks up in the second half, but again, not too much. There are no songs and no sexy dances. No story as such. Definitely not a movie for the mainstream audience. This is not a movie which falls into my favorite genre, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The movie is a piece of art.

Related Reading: A comparision between the book and the movie

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2007 1:42 pm

    Thanks Nita for letting me know that the film is depressing. I am an escapist and I avoid watching tragedies. I was planning to watch the film, now I will be happy reading the book.Very interesting analysis.

  2. March 26, 2007 2:18 pm

    want to watch this movie ASAP.but i didnt liked monsoon wedding…or i didnt get the meaning/?

  3. parag permalink
    March 26, 2007 3:21 pm

    i want to say nita, book is much.. much… beter than movie..
    i have seen movie at film festival mami this year.
    i was so bored with film because it doesnot hold u.. its like u watching something and suddenly disappear..
    mira made film like salam mumbai, monsoon wedding etc.. great film.. but namesake sorrry disapointing…
    actor like irfan and tabu wasted or may be they r doing same thing in acting ,….
    reply must nita..
    love parag

  4. March 26, 2007 5:35 pm

    I agree with you Parag. The movie was disappointing to me too. And yes, not as good as the book.
    But then its not easy to make a book like that into a movie.
    Prerna, the movie does not end in tragedy as such, because it does end with hope. But yes, its rather gloomy and certainly not entertainment in that sense. Also it drags in places.

    • Wurlsy permalink
      March 29, 2009 7:45 am

      its only disappointing if you like action and all those other stuff. this is literary work, not commercial….its not meant to entertain but to enlighten. its reality, and i believe that there is a universal tie in this movie that binds us all….watch it again and find yours.

  5. soorajrox permalink
    March 27, 2007 10:23 am

    I didn’t read the book. I didn’t see Monsoon Wedding, but I saw The Namesake. Frankly, I liked the film. I liked the way Mira Nair potrayed the relationship between the Irrfan and Tabu.
    Unlike the way you felt, one of the best scenes of the movie is the way the family gaze at the Taj Mahal. I was moved. It made me see the Taj Mahal as the same way they saw, beautiful.

    and about the ban, my God!, when are they gonna stop. People might have different opinions about a film, but why should a film be banned from a state. I didn’t look at Kolkata at a different way after the movie. What was shown was history…i meant the event like a man pulling a rickshaw, and that was there.

  6. March 27, 2007 10:48 am

    Hey, I think the Taj is beautiful too. I saw the Taj many years ago and well, that experience will stay with me forever. The way the kids in the movie saw it, I don’t know. They show these teenagers disliking India and then viola! They see the Taj and they are converted. It seemed artificial to me.
    I have lived in Kolkata for four years. It has a beautiful side, lovely gardens, beautiful houses, sprawling clubs, lovely shops, promenades, shopping centres, restaurents etc. Yes, it was all there in the seventies too. What Nair showed were narrow gullies, human rickshaws and crowds. Mira Nair showed only one aspect of it, except for a brief glimpse of the Victoria gardens. But then, like I said, maybe she was trying to be true to the book. Her protagonists after all came from a middle class family.
    What I too liked about the movie was the way the relationship was shown between the couple.
    I have no idea about any ban on the movie though.

  7. Sarah permalink
    March 28, 2007 10:10 pm

    Hi Nita,
    Love your website but I was disappointed in your review of the Namesake. My boyfriend is a Canadian born Gujarati and this film was so powerful for us because it so beautifully portrays the challenges of identity and belonging in the diaspora. I agree that the book was better but I thought Nair translated the tension and awkwardness that was present from the first page of the book onto the screen. These qualities make the movie hard to watch but the message is important.

  8. March 29, 2007 6:50 am

    Sarah, I rarely like a movie hundred per cent. In all my movie reviews I tend to say something negative as well as positive about a movie. That is why I never give out stars either because different individuals react differently to the same movie. But generally if I love a movie I tend to say more positive things, and in this case I have said far more positive things about the movie than negative. I have concluded that its a piece of art. That was what it was for me.
    But frankly, emotionally, the movie did not touch me in the sense you described – I found the powerful part the relationship between the couple. Maybe this movie is more likely to touch a chord with Americans/Canadians of Indian origin than Indians. I don’t know. I am just guessing as to why that part didn’t move me much.

  9. vasudev permalink
    March 29, 2009 1:48 pm

    [I wished Mira Nair had revealed the different side of Kolkata too however. The only thing we see is Kolkata’s seamy side, the poverty, the grime, and human misery complete with rickshaws being pulled by human beings.]

    did it win any oscars? or perhaps it got nominated? 😉

  10. vasudev permalink
    March 29, 2009 1:52 pm

    indian movies which win oscars can only be those which could portray india in its dirtiest, poorest, filthiest, most religiosly violent.

    just like indian novels which win booker.

    it is an open secret of success and many hitherto obscure opportunists have shot to fame just for showing india seemier than it actually is (maybe they use filters to show blood paler than it should be? you know…the blood of the undernourished famished indian!…worse than a kenyan’s perhaps)

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