The Namesake This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 20, 2013
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The 2006 film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake”, tugs at the heartstrings and exposes the contrasts between Indian tradition and American life. Film adaptations of books often raise the heartbeats of avid readers who fear the loss of literary symbolism and plot adherence. While director Mira Nair and screenplay writer Sconi Taraporevala tend to hyperbolize the extremity of situations, they manage to develop Gogol’s, and in a sense his parent’s and friends’, bildungsroman, and contrast his progress with his past, with proficiency that mostly sticks to Lahiri’s novel.

With an eye roll and a drag of weed, Kal Penn exposes the most rebellious nature of Gogol Ganguli. Kal Penn’s Gogol is blatantly rude to his father when he receives a book of Nikolai Gogol’s works. He is also shockingly outgoing with his gang of high school hippies in sharing his personal adventures in love and hatred of his name. Adherents to Lahiri’s novel would criticize this as an exaggeration of Gogol’s character. In the novel, Lahiri’s choice to internalize Gogol’s defiance played to the strength of written work in expressing thoughts with ease. It also developed Gogol’s more tacit nature. In the film, Mira Nair decides to show, rather than tell, audiences Ganguli’s thoughts. Nair again chooses to show Gogol’s building hatred for his name. She projects his personal fear of teasing and laughter about his name, into a reality. The classroom teasing scene suitably sets a backdrop, which is both molded to and contrasted throughout the remainder of the movie.

The choice to skip Nikhil Ganguli’s college years could have been detrimental to presenting his growth apart from his parents, but Nair makes up for the missed developmental years with Max. The first meeting between Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and Gogol’s parents was uncomfortable to say the least. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli (Tabu and Irrfan Khan respectively) completed the scene, shunning a scandalous shoulder-to-hand brush between Nikhil and Maxine.

Setting and wardrobe make up for the lack literary symbolism mentioned earlier. The Ratcliffe’s bourgeois house in the Hamptons replaced the run down shack they owned in the novel. Yet another exaggeration of the novel, the beautiful house exemplified how far removed Maxine’s family was from Gogol’s. Nikhil celebrated his birthday in the nice house with a cake that read “Happy Birthday Nick.” Meanwhile the next shot showed Ashima, dressed in a sari and contrasted by Christmas decorations, attempting to contact her son without luck. After the final phone call, she hung up the phone and said to herself “Happy Birthday Gogol.”

The release of Gogol’s rebellious past was executed beautifully. Again, creative filming and wardrobe enhanced the experience. The interwoven shots of Gogol’s feet and Ashoke’s feet brought the lives of the two men back together once more and transitioned into Gogol’s less defiant, Indian cultural stage. The choice of wardrobe for Ashoke’s memorial was brilliant; Maxine’s all black attire juxtaposed Gogol’s pure white clothing, distancing her from him.

Although Zuleikha Robinson played the part exceptionally, an over sexualized version of Moushumi shocked all those viewers familiar with the novel. Her amplified sexuality revealed the vanity still present in Gogol’s relationships. It also exposed the difference between the Ganguli family’s lifestyle and Mo’s.

Tabu and Irrfan Khan (Ashima and Ashoke respectively) deserve high praise for their deep understanding of the couple as a whole and as separate parts. Tabu captured the nuances of Ashima’s behavior in India as opposed to her behavior in America. Her sharp tongue and curiosity disappeared when she arrived in America. Irrfan Khan found the silent and clever nature of Ashoke and developed it perfectly in scenes like the couple’s first week in the U.S.. Wardrobe again symbolized their relationship as they boarded a plane in India to leave for America. Ashoke sported khaki pants and an oxford shirt while Ashima wore a traditional Indian sari, showing each of their reactions to life in the United States: easy assimilation and withdrawal to Indian culture. Through the movie, the couple grew to reach a point at which they were comfortable with each other. Nair chose to show a more openly affectionate side of the pair. The decision neither harmed nor improved the movie, but walked a thin line to avoid undermining Ashima and Ashoke’s feelings about Max.

Ashima’s reaction to Ashoke’s death was the most emotional scene in the movie. I held back tears, and am sure that even the more masculine viewers did same. The shot of Ashima washing off her bindi with blood colored hands, particularly struck the heart.

As a whole, the film version of “The Namesake” effectively uses visual symbolism and other traditional movie techniques to translate the immigrant experience and develop Gogol’s coming of age story. While changes of the original plot shock readers, they still mesh with the rest of the film to create a bigger picture that Lahiri would probably approve of.

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