Mira Nair’s trademark is to dramatise conflicts between generations and customs, with special interest in newcomers to America. The screen translation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel therefore seems custom-fitted to her sensibilities: it reaches between two countries over three decades to chronicle the bittersweet journey of Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and his wife, Ashima (Tabu), Bengali immigrants to the US, and their American-born son with the odd but significant name, Gogol (Kal Penn). The film is an anxious object, trembling with ethno-cultural tensions and clenched desire, and reverberating from the impact of the accident that sets it in motion. (We won’t give away the details, though the trailer will.) And the namesake of ‘The Namesake’ is wound pretty tight himself: Gogol is forever irritated by his old-world parents and hell-bent on assimilating into an America that, after all, he was born in.
These assorted jitters lend a crucial dose of nervous energy to a sometimes sluggish, overdetermined adaptation of what’s after all a sluggish, overdetermined book. But the film is bolder and more vivid than its source, aided by cinematographer Frederick Elmes’ limpid palette and by the eros and sensuality that pulsates between Ashoke and Ashima, poster children for arranged marriage. Khan and Tabu’s soulful performances and heart-stopping chemistry are the film’s bright core. Gogol remains a one-and-a-half-note role, and yet the film uses him with ruthless precision to leave its most intense impression, one that will be recognisable to many adults who have ever contemplated the loss of a parent: the wrath of regret.