THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair, 2006)

Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, Mira Nair’s The Namesake is further proof that the maker of Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2002) has nothing of value to contribute to cinema. Poorly acted, and eerily populated by ugly guys and pretty gals, a contrived tearjerker is what Nair serves up.
     For all its insistence to the contrary, The Namesake doesn’t explore in any rigorous way the generational/ethno-identity divide between a Bengal couple, U.S. immigrants, and their U.S.-born offspring. Nor does the disruption of the wife/mother’s singing aspirations, coupled with her nostalgia for her homeland, render the situation any more complex. Everything in this film is either facile or presented in a facile manner. The United States, it would appear, has turned the lives of the Gangulis into bargain-basement soap opera.
     The protagonist is the son, Gogol, named for his father’s favorite Russian author. Understandably, Gogol isn’t happy with his name and eventually changes it; but his father has a special reason for having named his son Gogol, and right before having a massive heart attack he discloses it to his son privately. This is one of the film’s tearjerking moments, and it is typical of Nair’s corruption and puny gifts. Rather than presenting her material fairly and honestly, Nair withholds the revelation until she can pounce on us with it and wallop our tender hearts. It is no excuse for such rank manipulation that she is following the book’s narrative structure, if indeed that is what she is doing. (I have not read the novel, although I have read Lahiri’s short stories in Interpreter of Maladies.) Two wrongs don’t make a right.
     The Namesake is not without its engaging moments, especially when Gogol brings his non-Indian girlfriend home for dinner. But these are not enough.


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