Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Namesake, The (2006)

Filed under: baby photos you hide from your friends

It's easy to make a movie about immigrants! Just play up the stereotypes - traditional elders vs thoroughly acculturated second generation youngsters, and depending on the slant of your politics, we'll either have a comedy like Bend It Like Beckham where the sympathies lie with the free spirited youngsters pitted against parochial and ultra-conservative parents trying their best to curtail the freedom of youth, or a romantic melodrama like Awakening aka "Wu Suo Nanyang" where the heroic and self-sacrificing elder generation is ultimately betrayed by a fickle, Westernised generation of thankless and selfish youth. The problem is both approaches lie in the wrongheaded reliance on paying up the angst of fitting in, either for comic or melodramatic effect. I guess it's fine if one wants to be entertained in a superficial way, to watch yet another "2nd generation immigrant comes to terms with adopted culture and original heritage" movie, but what about people who prefer to watch a more realistic and less manipulative, stereotypical, and hysterical movie about immigrants?

The Namesake, based on a book by Mira Nair, offers itself as a solution for us. It tells of the Gangulis, one of the odder immigrant families in fiction to date (aside from the Kumars at no. 42!). Ashoke and Ashima are the Bengali couple (matchmade in India, of course) who came all the way from India, while Gogol is their American-born son who sort of chaffs at his name. This is a reversal of dramatic convention, not least because the parents were the ones who chose the westernised name Gogol (as in Nikolai Gogol), while the hip, rock-music listening, liberal shiksa goddess-dating son is the one who really wants to be called by his good Bengali name of Nikil. It may be a simple reversal, but this minute detail describes the state of immigrant culture far more realistically than any dramatised movie - everyone is already bicultural to some extent - especially first generation immigrants. This "reversal" also reflects the ground far better - the anxiety of identity is more keenly felt by the second generation, and they may actually turn out to have more hang-ups being bicultural (and hence make a bigger deal out of it) than their assimiliationist parents.

So The Namesake begins right, addressing an emotive issue without sensationalism, using the idea of naming as a less sensationalist (than say, an arranged marriage or a ban from untraditional activities!) entry point into an often emotive issue. And with that beginning, everything just follows naturally. The first third of the movie concerns itself with the Ganguli elders - their uprooting from India to settlement in New York City, the middle third with the congenial, even cheeky struggle between Ganguli pere and fils (Kal Pen, from Harold & Kumar go to White Castle) about the naming issue, and the final third a sombre rumination on bicultural adaptation, misunderstandings, and acceptance for both generations of the family.

Instead of poking unfair fun at stereotypes, much of the comedy in this movie is good-natured and sympathetic to both sides of the issue, without falling into cheap sentimentality either - a rare trait in the immigrant genre movie. One can only praise the screen adaptation of Nair's novel, which preserves much of the wry humour, spot-on observations, and empathetic understanding of the immigration/culture issue. I am loath to say it, but The Namesake holds up very well against Ang Lee's Eat Man Drink Woman, itself a strong immigrant genre movie. What The Namesake has in its favour is its less formulaic handling of the issues, while its cinematography - emphasising the energy of NYC and Calcutta - is on par with the food porn approach of Ang Lee's film. Both endings and resolutions are equally surprising, although one might be tempted to prefer Nair's film because of its stronger emotional impact.

Do watch The Namesake: it has no screaming traditionalist parents, no Bollywood dance sequences, but reaches to all parents and children - and is itself a strong proof that biculturality is a universal condition.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

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