Saturday, March 31, 2007

THE NAMESAKE - lyrical immigrant story

THE NAMESAKE is a beautifully produced, deeply affecting immigrant story, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. The team behind SALAAM BOMBAY and MISSISSIPI MASALA (director Mira Nair and writer Sooni Taraporevala)and cinematographer Frederick Elmes deliver a sensitive adaptation that will, I hope, resonate beyond the ex-pat communities in America and Europe.

The two-hour drama centres on a charismatic but self-contained Bengali academic called Ashoke. An avid fan of author, Nikolai Gogol, he undergoes a traditional arranged marriage and takes his young bride to America. They have two children, move to the suburbs and have a loving, happy life. This all sounds rather banal, but thanks to absolutely stunning performances by Irrfan Khan and Tabu,
this relationship is captivating. It is rare to find two such memorable characters - and such an enchanting portrait of a quietly happy marriage - on screen.

The real drama of the story centres on Ashoke and Ashima's son, formally named Nikhil (a name he can conveniently shorten to Nick in later life), but lovingly known as Gogol. Gogol grows up as an all-american kid and much of the second half of the movie centres on how he comes to terms with both aspects of his life. I found this a far less successul plot strand - although still by far more interesting than most movies. The reason is that Gogol is played by Kal Penn who, while a highly gifted comic actor, simply does not have the chops for such challenging dramatic material*. Another problem is that Gogol's love interests - a Bengali played by Zulheika Robinson and a preppie played by Jacinda Barrett - are thinly drawn: arguably casualties of compressing the novel into a two-hour run-time.

Despite these flaws, THE NAMESAKE remains a fascinating, finely-observed, moving story. Highly recommended.

THE NAMESAKE played Toronto and London 2006 and is on release in the USA, India, France, Italy and the UK. It opens in Australia and Singapore on April 5th and in Belgium, Mexico, the Netherland and Spain in May. It opens on June 14th in Germany. *Although it is ironic to note that Kal Penn has also shortened his Indian name to make it more Hollywood-friendly.

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