Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Namesake

Based on a novel of the same name, The Namesake unfolds very much like a novel; the film is quiet, simple, rich, and rewarding. There are moments of great emotional weight, though most of the film remains soft-spoken, inviting you to embark on a peaceful journey through the very soul of America, through the heart of India, and back. The plot of The Namesake proves less important than the story’s emotions. If asked what the film is about, I would probably give several single-word responses: family, legacy, love, grief, etc. Even attempting to write about it proves difficult; The Namesake must be felt.

That being said, a brief summary is still in order. Ashoke (Irfan Kahn) and Ashima (Tabu) are a young Bengali couple who move from Calcutta, India, to New York City. Ashoke has been living in America for some time already, but Ashima has never known anything outside of India. The early scenes of their life in America wonderfully communicate Ashima’s culture-shock and loneliness. She and Ashoke eventually have two children, a daughter named Sonia, and a son, named for Ashoke’s favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. The Namesake chronicles two decades of the Ganguli family as all four of them gradually become American while also staying true to their Indian heritage.

The characters in The Namesake are as believable as any characters I’ve seen. The credit for this can be placed on at least four different parties: Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Sooni Taraporevala, the woman who adapted the screenplay, Mira Nair, the director, and of course, the actors. The characters in The Namesake do not follow film clich├ęs, they are not predictable, and they are not morally simple. These are real people who behave as such, and none of them can be placed into two-dimensional molds of good or evil, hero or villain. This story certainly has its heroes, but they are the vulnerable heroes of real life: ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary compassion and understanding.

One of the film’s key triumphs is its marvelous use of time. Time passes so very realistically, which doesn’t occur too often in the movies. The Namesake has scenes that unfold very slowly, in real-time, followed by cuts where ten years have passed. The film moves at a contemplative pace, while also soaring past entire years of the plot like a smooth stone skipping on the surface of a pond. In keeping with real life, the years seem to fly by, and eventually the characters are left holding only their memories, most precious of which are fragments of conversations. This use of time makes it almost impossible to sense where the story is headed - another rarity in most movies. The film has a two hour running time, though it feels closer to three, and in this case that’s a good thing. Roger Ebert has often said, “No good movie is too long, no bad movie is short enough.” The Namesake doesn’t waste a moment.

Several scenes make much more sense long after they have passed. After seeing the film, thinking back on specific conversations with the entire context of the story in place, moments took on new meaning for me. A screenplay serves as the soul of any adaptation, and it carries the sometimes unthinkable weight of bridging the source material and the finished film. Novels built more around human emotion than plot do not always translate successfully to the screen, but Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay for The Namesake makes all the right decisions. It knows when to employ large, bold brushstrokes, yet also knows when to move in close and highlight the smallest details. The script spills over with humanity and life, and in the hands of sensitive director Mira Nair, the film flourishes quietly, but confidently.

Mira Nair was offered the director’s chair for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but she declined, opting to direct The Namesake instead. She would have made a marvelous Harry Potter film, and also would have become a household name overnight because of it. Personally, I’m glad she chose to tell this story. Her film probably won’t find wide circulation, though I suspect it will linger for quite some time in the hearts of all who do see it.

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