Viewed 4 days ago, January 17 2009: The Namesake directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn, Tabu, and Irrfan Khan; based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.
The movie opens with a man, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), riding on a train in India, reading a book of stories by Gogol. A fellow passenger urges him to travel, but he is happily rooted; all the travelling he needs to do he can do via others’ words on the printed page. There is a mostly-implied accident. Scenes change, time passes, and we find that he’s uprooted and gone to America. He returns to arrange a marriage to Ashima (Tabu) and brings her back to the US. There they have a son. They’d like to take some time to name him, but the US hospital requires that they provide a name for a birth certificate before they leave, and so they give him the name Gogol after the father’s favorite author. More time passes; a sister Sonia (played by Sahira Nair) arrives, and both children grow older. Gogol (played as a young adult by Kal Penn) has come to resent his alien name, as it isolates him from his American peers. He chooses instead to go by Nikhil – Nick for short – interestingly a variation of the author Nikolai Gogol’s first name.
And that’s the setup, modulo some details. The movie builds from there into an intricate tale of life influenced by externalities; of personal and cultural clashes, alienation and rejoining; of literature and stages of life. Significant mention is made of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” including a reference to Dostoevsky’s alleged remark that “we all” (meaning Russian literature) “come out from Gogol’s Overcoat” – a very self-referential, almost fractal remark about both this film and that story.
Deeper than that I won’t go, which is probably just as well. The movie doesn’t lend itself to an easy recapitulation, nor is that something I want to try right now.
When I was younger I used to have a thing, a mental defect if you will, where I would almost always refuse to see a movie that was based on a book unless I had read the book first. Nowadays I’m older, read a lost less, and see a lot more movies. But I think I might have wanted to employ that policy here. Not that the movie is bad: quite the opposite. It’s a very engaging and rewarding film, with fine performances all around, one that suggests a richness of source material. I think I’ll want to seek out the book, and you can take that as a compliment to the film.