Much of what I know of India has come from movies; first, Satyajit Ray's "Apu" trilogy, then Louis Malle's documentary series "Phantom India," a powerful dissection of the country, its contradictions and its caste system fifteen years after Partition, that the government still has not permitted to be screened there; then - well, then the dam broke and everything from Bollywood musicals to Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay" and "Monsoon Wedding" came along to enrich my life. Nair's latest film, "The Namesake," is based on a popular novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about two generations of a family trying to live happily over a thirty-year period, in two worlds at once: the classic, flowing India of Calcutta and the more concrete society of today's United States.
It begins in the seventies, when young Ashoke, played by Irrfan Khan, on his way to visit his grandfather and reading Gogol's "The Overcoat" on the train, survives a horrific crash and decides that Gogol has been a good-luck talisman. He marries Ashima (played by the beautiful Tabu) in an arranged marriage, and they move to New York, where he has a university teaching job but she is at first out of her depth in a new society. They have a boy, and discover that unlike India they must give him a name before the hospital will let them leave. Ashoke's temporary fix is to give him the casual name Gogol, trusting that according to the Indian way his proper name, Nikil, will soon replace it.
Gogol - now played by Kal Penn (from "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle") - is ambivalent about his name, going back and forth in school from 'Nick' to 'Gogol,' or 'Google,' as he is often teased, as he tries to be totally American. He goes to Yale, becomes an architect, has an American girlfriend, played by Jacinda Barrett, feels the tug of his Calcutta heritage, meets and marries another Indian woman, a sophisticate who's lived in France and who even turns down an invitation to teach at the Sorbonne in order to stay with him.
Nair deals sympathetically with both generations - Ashoke and Ashima have by now moved to the suburbs, and even put lighted reindeer on their lawn at Christmas - but life is not so easily controlled; bad things happen to each of them and must be dealt with, and that is the burden of the rest of the film.
I have admired Nair's work in the past, but unfortunately "The Namesake" plays more like a Lifetime television drama than a meaningful statement of art. Life is sad, then it's happy, then it's sad, then it's - well, you get my point. By focusing on three people: father, mother and son, she's diffused the film and loses the power that would have come by seeing everything through the eyes of just one of them. Although she has composed many beautiful scenes, they're more like a series of tableaus than they are a study of life's inexorable progression, with its pleasures and tragedies, sometimes separate and sometimes jumbled together, that give resonance to the best films. "The Namesake" is like a thirty-year soap opera compressed into two hours of screen time. It deserves to have been better.