Film Review: The Namesake

An arranged marriage brings together Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) leading them from Calcutta to New York to seek fortune. Their story is the set of the clash between the West and East: traditions, cultures, values.

If he is already used to a foreign environment because of his academic studies, she is like a fish out of water. Everything, from weather to food, the American lifestyle and the distance from her family, makes her first encounter with the Big Apple difficult to manage and digest.

But, in their case, love rises and gets stronger day by day. The first child arrives. He is a male and he gets the name of “Gogol”, in honour of Ashoke’s favourite author Nikolaj Gogol. “Gogol” was meant to be a temporary nickname while waiting for the grandmother’s choice – in the Bengali tradition grandparents are the ones supposed to assign names to new members of the family – but it eventually becomes the official one. That name, initially loved, then hated and finally loved again, will accompany this Indian American in his constant and conflicting search for an identity that is neither Indian nor American, but hybrid.

The great value of Mira Nair’s movie relies in its ability to shed light on such a delicate and complicated issue that is the question of identity throughout two generations of immigrants. If for Ashoke and Ashima finding their own place is challenging, it is even more arduous for Gogol. Unlike his parents, who start experiencing a foreign country only in adult age and know exactly where they come from, Gogol is lost: his identity, like a jungle, is made of interwined roots.

The tone is always light and familiar. Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic but always clever, this movie is successful in entertaining both the audience exclusively looking for a funny and moving story, and the engaged audience interested in learning more about the issue of identity and the encounter between the Western and the Eastern spheres. The intellectual eye of the critic committed to unearth seeds of biased unbalance trembles along the entire length of the film: sometimes it makes you feel that it is aimed to exalt America and its image of “modernity” and “freedom”, sometimes India and its image of “spirituality” and “wisdom”. But, at the end, it is clear that Mira Nair’s purpose is actually to identify and deconstruct prejudices and common places affecting the perceptions of India and America by finally revealing a powerful message: there is no winner. It is not by neglecting the Indian or the American roots that Gogol finds his way and balance, but by acknowledging and accepting both of them.

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