The Namesake (DVD, 2007) Reviews
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The Namesake (DVD, 2007)

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What's in a Name in Mira Nair's Rich Portrait of Cultural Identity

Jan 9, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Nair's Direction, Script, Themes, Locations, Elmes' Cinematography, Music, Editing, Costumes, & Cast.


The Bottom Line: The Namesake is a Rich, Enduring, & Heartfelt Masterpiece from Mira Nair featuring Great Performances from Tabu, Irfan Khan, & Kal Penn.

One of India's great directors, Mira Nair has given audiences a wonderfully, colorful presentation on not just her native character but rich characters all over the world. While she is known for her India-based films like Salaam Bombay!, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and 2001's Monsoon Wedding that won her the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. She's also known for putting a richer stamp on more conventional fare on films like Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington, the TV film Hysterical Blindness with Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, and Gena Rowlands, and 2004's film adaptation of Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon. In 2007, Nair returned to India for a film about cultural and generation conflicts in a moving adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake.

Directed by Mira Nair with an adapted screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, The Namesake is about a young man whose life in America along with an American girlfriend starts to clash with his Indian roots as he also disappoints his Indian-born parents. Learning about his name and his own family, he goes to India on a trip to learn about himself and his own family. Starring Kal Penn, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Zuleikha Robinson, and Irfan Khan. The Namesake is a moving, compassionate masterpiece from Mira Nair and company.

Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is riding on a train in India reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he talks to an old man named Ghosh (Jangannath Guha) about the world when a crash occurred. Three years later in 1977, Ashoke is with his family as he is about to meet his bride Ashami (Tabu) in an arranged marriage as they're set to depart for New York City. Though Ashoke manages to find work through a college and be accustomed to American lifestyle, Ashami feels lonely and confused. Yet, she finds comfort in Ashoke as they eventually gain a son the following year whom they name Gogol as the pet name when they're still waiting for her grandmother to give the baby boy his official name. With a baby girl named Sonia to follow, things started to feel blissful despite Ashami's cultural confusion as she and the family return to India following her father's (Sabayasachi Chakravarthy) death.

It's the mid-1990s as Gogol (Kal Penn) has become a typical American teenager who listens to grunge rock, smoke pot, and is about to graduate. Yet, he still struggles with his name Nihil Gogol Ganguli after learning from a teacher (Linus Roache) that he was named after a Russian novelist who had a bleak outlook on life. Though Ashoke and Ashami are struggling with Gogol and Sonia's (Sahira Nair) American outlook, they decide to take the family to India for the summer. Before leaving, Ashoke gives Gogol a present which is a book by Nikolai Gogol that Gogol doesn't seem enthused about yet Ashoke says it will bring him something. Around that same time, plans for a possible arranged marriage is made between Gogol and a young girl named Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson). During their trip to India, the family visit relatives and other places as the big moment is the trip to the Taj Mahal where Gogol learns what he wants to do with his life. Returning home, Gogol also decides to change his name back to Nihil for a business identity.

Years later as he becomes an architect, Gogol finds happiness in an American girlfriend named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) while his parents find themselves becoming disconnected with their children as Sonia now lives in California. With Ashoke set to work at a Cleveland university for a semester, he becomes worried for Ashima who never lived alone all her life. Though an awkward visit from Gogol and Maxine arrive for lunch on their way to a vacation, Ashima struggles to deal with Gogol's life while Gogol is trying to think more about himself. It is there that Ashoke has a private moment with Gogol about his name. Then, an event forces Gogol to rethink his entire life as he returns to India and learn about his identity. After seeing Moushimi again, he starts to find himself in touch with his Indian heritage while starting to accept who he is. Still, his acceptance also forces him to learn the true meaning of his name and what he wants with his life.

Films about cultural clash, isolation, family, and acceptance often tend to be overdramatized or sometimes done with humor. Yet, from the vison of Mira Nair whose roots remain in India while splitting her time also in New York City. With a wonderful script by Sooni Taraporevala, the film definitely pays true to Jhumpa Lahiri's novel in this story of change and culture. Nair’s ethereal and evocative direction is amazing from the film's opening scenes in India that is filled with color to the grayish look of winter that reveals the sense of change and isolation from the viewpoint of Ashima. Isolation is the theme of Ashima whose fears to be alone as she deals with not just loss but also her children departing for their own worlds.

Then there's the character of Gogol who like his mother go through a change in character development. While she deals with her own isolation and cultural clashes, Gogol deals with a cultural clash in a similar way yet also his own identity as he becomes confused about himself and his name. Then there's the theme of acceptance where both Gogol and Ashima start to get into in the third act. Yet, for both of them, it becomes a fulfillment of their characters as they're each guided by Ashoke who acts like a guide for everyone as his bravery is really the glue that holds the story together. Nair's direction is truly superb in the way she places her camera, the framing, and presentation is great. Even in the film's final moments has an emotional payoff that is extremely moving without being manipulative or overly sentimental. It's Nair at her finest.

Cinematographer Frederick Elmes does great work in capturing the beauty of India with his fluid camera while adding bits of grainy distortion for flashback sequences including Ashoke's train crash. Elmes work in his photography is brilliant to show the contrasting look of India and New York City in all of its splendor as its exteriors are great while the interiors, notably in India are just exquisite. Editor Allyson C. Johnson does excellent work with the film's editing in the use of transitions and perspective cutting to convey the sense of emotion in the film's scene along with the structuring of the story and flashbacks. Even the film's pacing is solid without being too slow or too fast with credit also going to Nair in her direction.

Production designer Stephanie Carroll and art director Suttirat Anne Larlarb do great work in the differing look of the times from the colorful yet street look of India to the clean, American suburban homes that Ashoke and Ashima live in along with the homes Gogol visits. Costume designer Arjun Bhasin does exquisite work with the traditional Indian clothing that Ashima wears throughout the film along with the contemporary clothing other characters wear in the American sequences. Sound mixers Dave Paterson and Joe White do excellent work in conveying the different cultural atmospheres of India and America in all of their glory. Music composer Nitin Sawhney does excellent work in creating a subtle, traditional Indian score that is filled with layers of vocals and sitars while the soundtrack is a mix of traditional Indian music, Indian pop, hip-hop, and rock music including Pearl Jam.

The casting by Cindy Tolan is great in employing a wonderful mix of Indian and American actors. Small appearances from American actors Glenne Headly and Daniel Gerroll as Maxine’s parents, Brooke Smith as Ashima's library co-worker Sally, and Maximilano Hernandez as Sonia's boyfriend Ben are nice to see along with a cameo from British actor Linus Roache as Gogol's literature teacher. Indian actors Tanusree Shankar and Sabayasachi Chakravarthy as Ashima's parents, Ruma Guha Thakurta and Tamal Sengupta as Ashoke's parents, and Jangannath Guha as Mr. Ghosh are great in their brief scenes. Soham Chatterjee is wonderful as the four-year old Gogol with Noor Lahiri Vourvoulias as the baby Sonia.

Mira Nair's niece Sahira is great as the teenage/adult Sonia who starts off as a typical Indian-American teenager who couldn't relate to India while dealing with cultural changes and then as a woman who takes care of her mother. Jacinda Barrett is excellent as Maxine, Gogol's American girlfriend who loves Gogol and wants to understand his Indian heritage despite a few awkward moments involving his parents that shows her naivete and innocence. Zuleikha Robinson is wonderful as Moushimi, an arty young woman who starts off as a nerd and is then seen as this beautiful, cultured woman who like Gogol, struggles with her own heritage. Robinson's performance is filled with charm and depth as she is a wonder onscreen that includes a great dance sequence of sorts with her and Kal Penn.

Known to American audiences for his comedic film roles including Van Wilder, Malibu's Most Wanted, and the stoner cult-classic Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Kal Penn delivers an impressive performance as Nikhil Gogol Ganguli. Penn does a great job in selling the American teenager that he is struggling with his name and identity while he is then seen as an adult. Then when his character changes and deals with this conflict of identity, Penn shows his strength as a dramatic actor as he is a huge revelation in the film. It's also noted he got the part as he was suggested by Nair's son and a friend of his for the role. Irfan Khan delivers an amazing, subtle performance as Ashoke Ganguli, a man whose wisdom on life is just a joy to watch. Khan's performance is really the centerpiece of the film as his character guides both his wife and son into their own path to self-discovery. Khan's performance is definitely one of the year best and must certainly not be overlooked.

The film's best performance easily goes to Tabu, a famous Bollywood actress in her first major American production. Though she's in her 30s, Tabu definitely brings a performance that starts out youthful as she brought a sense of innocence to the film in her scenes in India. Then in America, she shows depth in her dealing with isolation and cultural change while she has amazing chemistry with Khan. In the role of parent, Tabu has an older look yet remains radiant and spellbinding as this woman who is dealing with her children's Americanized personalities and changing times. Tabu is really the heart of the film and her performance is truly unforgettable.

The Namesake is an endearing, heartfelt masterpiece from Mira Nair and company with great performances from Irfan Khan, Tabu, and Kal Penn. While it's not as great as Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake is still a film that audiences can relate to, particularly immigrants who feel homesick in their native countries. This is a rare film in the days of overblown Hollywood blockbuster and family films with cheap gimmicks that really defines the idea of a worldly film that has powerful themes on family. In the end, for a film that has a great message, themes, and with a lot of rich imagery, The Namesake by Mira Nair is the film to seek out.

Mira Nair Films:

Salaam Bombay! (1988):

(Coming Soon)

Mississippi Masala (1991):

(Coming Soon)

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996):

(Coming Soon)

Hysterical Blindness (2000):

(Coming Soon)

Monsoon Wedding (2001):

(Coming Soon)

Vanity Fair (2004):

(Coming Soon)

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