Lost in translation

Director Mira Nair's adaptation of the book 'The Namesake' delicately examines cultural differences

Michael Garberich

Mira Nair’s (“Monsoon Wedding”) colorful adaptation of “The Namesake” focuses on two stories about Bengali cultural identity – one about native Bengali mother Ashima’s (Tabu) assimilation to life in America, and the other about her son, Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli (Kal Penn), and his discovery of his Bengali heritage. And while the film entertains a few brilliant moments of empathy and beautifully balances time between swarthy Kolkata streets and an icy New York, it cannot seem to free itself from its own namesake, the 2003 Jhumpa Lahiri novel from which it is adapted.

“The Namesake”
DIRECTED BY: Mira Nair
STARRING: Kal Penn, Tabu, Irfan Khan
RATED: PG-13
PLAYING AT: Landmark Uptown, 2906 Hennepin Ave., (612) 825-6006

Whereas literature benefits greatly from referencing other literature, film often stumbles if it takes too large a stake in running its themes along literary lines without an equivalent in the image.

While aboard a train that crashed in his youth, Ashima’s husband Ashoke (Irfan Khan) carried with him and read Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century short story, “The Overcoat.” Its frequent reference in the film, however, feels like one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins – popping in from time to time to make sure the story maintains its steam – without inspiring the same degree of intrigue.

For Ashima, her arranged marriage with Ashoke brings her to America – “this lonely country,” as she first calls it. But as she learns to live with Ashoke, so too does she become better acquainted with the new country she must share with him.

The couple raises a nuclear family – a boy and a girl – and watches their children graduate high school and college, earn jobs and marry. Soon enough Ashima thoughtfully says of her children’s apparent indifference, “it is the American way,” evoking the same attitude in the saying.

Gogol’s awkward-sounding name – “can you imagine ‘Gogol Ganguli’ on a résumé?” he asks his father – further frustrates the already angst-ridden teenage years, when identities typically first encounter crisis.

But beyond high school’s typical social denudation is the problem of cultural identity that Nair evokes through sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted comparisons between Bengali Indian tradition and America’s lax, albeit frequently sublimated approach to relationships.

A hug before Gogol’s parents becomes an infringement. A first name sounds like a gesture of disrespect.

Both cultural crimes are committed by Maxine (Jacinda Barrett). She’s the attractive, fair-skinned WASP whose parents own a lake house and whom Gogol courts while pursuing an architecture degree at Yale. By this time, however, he’s done away with his stigmatic nickname “Gogol,” and adopted his official first name, Nikhil, Nick for short.

Yet it is never race that resides at the heart of “The Namesake,” but the individual’s relation to its culture. It is race, after all, that wishes to cover up culture, to paint with a specific color as if all colors do not bleed alike. Race is easy. Culture is complex.

After Gogol and Maxine’s relationship fails, he dates and ultimately marries a fellow Bengali-American girl from his past: the previously frumpy daughter of a neighbor turned intellectual hottie after a few provocative years in Paris. But their marriage doesn’t last. As she puts it, “Maybe both of us being Bengali isn’t enough.”

For the avoidance of over-simplified race relations, Nair deserves commendation. Her subtle paralleling of the struggles toward assimilation for both Gogol and Ashima never preaches, and we are therefore able to appreciate, often hilariously, each character’s adoption and adaptation of their own and others’ cultures.

Doubtlessly, those who’ve read the two novels, “The Namesake” and “The Overcoat,” will have an added layer of reference on which to texture the film’s literary nods. But film needs to move – we do, after all, call them motion pictures – as well as tell a good story, and “The Namesake” too often feels like text still lying on the page.