AT THE LAKE
On my way from the Oak Park Green Line stop to the Lake Theatre to see The Namesake last week I passed Scoville Park and the library. It was a sunny, warm day and those venues were packed with a broad spectrum of humanity. The diversity of which we are so proud was on full display with a population that could have been from almost anywhere in the world. I wondered about the stories these people might tell about how they had come to live in Oak Park, Illinois.
The Namesake tells such a story-the journey of two generations of a Bengali family from late 1970’s Calcutta to New York City. It addresses with subtlety and intelligence the complex issues of immigrants and their children becoming part of American culture, while struggling to retain their own.
Ashima (Tabu) a classically trained singer and Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Kbon), an aspiring engineer, move to America in 1977 after their arranged marriage in Calcutta. Their integration into American life has its warm and funny moments as the two newlyweds cling to each other in their strange new world.
Soon enough they have a baby boy who is given the name Gogol after Ashoke’s favorite author Nikolai Gogol, who spent much of his life outside his Mother Russia. As Gogol grows into manhood, his ongoing ambivalence about his nickname (the kids call him “Pogo.” No doubt today he would be called “Googol”) becomes a metaphor for his culture conflict. Gogol is played by Kal Penn who was Kumar in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The second half of the movie is about Gogol and his conflicted attitudes toward his parents and India. He has serious relationships with Maxine, a willowy WASP from Long Island, and when that doesn’t work out, he then falls in love and marries an Indian woman Moushemi (Zullerkha Robinson, the slave girl from Rome), but happiness remains elusive.
The acting here is pretty much pitch perfect. I liked that fact that all of the characters were developed. Mom and Dad Ganguli were particularly well performed. As a parent of adult children, Tabu and Irrfan Kban capture that ambivalence every parent feels when you have to decide whether to say something or just hold your tongue and let the kids figure it out. It is a difficult choice, and it presents itself frequently.
The movie is a reflection on what makes a person the person he is. The influence of our parents is so very significant, but we only realize that significance as we grow older. Yet we are unique in our own ways. There are a number of very good scenes in The Namesake that, strung together, make for a very good movie.
One of the best scenes comes at the end of the movie when Gogol talks to his mother who is returning to India, and she is comforting him on the failure of his marriage to Moushami. Gogol acknowledges the pain of losing his mother and his wife, but he acknowledges a sense of release, a feeling of freedom. He now understands that he is his parents’ son and that India will always be part of him, but he is his own man and that recognition is liberating.
Lots of good movies and books have addressed the immigrant experience in America. The Namesake is a very worthy addition to that list.