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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Namesake


I am yet to read the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, but I am sure Mira Nair has done all the justice she could. The array of emotions one experiences while watching the movie can be evinced by the gasps of laughter and stifled cries in the hall. I don't know if first novels can be made into movies this great ( The Namesake was written after Jhumpa's Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies). But Mira Nair has done it.

>>> Spoiler warning <<<
The opening shot is of Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) , then a student of Calcutta University, traveling in a train destined for Jamshedpur, India. He was reading the collected short stories by his favorite Russian author Nikolai Gogol. A certain Mr. Ghosh makes acquaintance with him during the journey and urges him to "Go, See the world" when the train meets with an accident.
Scene II depicts Ashoke lying in a hospital bed, looking out of the window dreamily, with his mother attending upon him. This could as well be flagged as the turning point of Ashoke's life.
The story follows to a few years later where he is doing his Ph.D in Fiber Optics in the US. He comes to India and is arranged to meet Ashima (Tabu) and their wedding is fixed. The would be father-in-law asks her if she 'd be able to manage living in the US- it's going to be cold and lonely. Ashima replies quite simply- Uni thaakben na? ( Won't he be there ?). As if it were enough for her to leave her family behind to begin a new life in a strange country.
They begin their life in a small apartment where they try to adjust to each other and the world around them.

When their first child- a son is born and the issuing of a birth certificate requires a name to be given to the child, the Gangulis decide to give him the daak naam (=pet name) Gogol ( after Ashok' s favorite author) until his bhalo naam (=good/official name) is decided upon by his grandmother who lives in India,
thus planting the seeds of conflicts that arises in the protagonist's mind later. When he is 4 and goes to school, he wishes to be known as "Gogol" and not Nikhil Ganguli.
When Ashima complains, Ashoke reasons- America is a free country. Here the kids decide. Even if he decides to be called "Jimmy", there's nothing much we can do.

On his graduation day, Gogol (Kal Penn)shares an anecdote with his friends how his name "Gogol Ganguli" has become an impediment to the materialization of his desires.

Here's the namokoroner sarthokota (significance of the title). A person's name is his identity. His connection with his roots- his past and the very foundation of his future. It tells us who he is and where he comes from. And maybe to some extent- where he is going to be.

Gogol faces difficulties in accepting his pet name and now sees his good name Nikhil as a better alternative which can be compressed to "Nick".
A visit to the Taj Mahal and the witnessing of its splendor inspires him to become an architect. While he is studying for it, he befriends Maxine whom he invites over to meet his parents. His parents reservations about holding hands or even sharing a kiss keeps him guarded while they are visiting them. Maxine greets Ashima warmly, kissing her on the cheeks and calling her by her first name. (not really acceptable in Bengali culture). The subtle change on Tabu's crestfallen face is the mark of a mature actress.
On their way to purchase ice-cream, Ashoke recounts how he had survived the train accident by clutching at the pages of Nikolai's book, a shocked Gogol asks his father-: "Do I remind you of that night?!"
Ashoke replies- No! No! Everyday after that has been a gift.
And he understands- at least a bit of the sentiment his father had when naming their son.

Ashoke dies in Cleveland hospital after a massive heart-attack when Gogol is spending the weekend with his girlfriend. When he gets to Ohio to identify his father's body, he gets his head shaved( customary after bereavement). Ashima sees his son at the airport, caresses his bald head while she holds him in an embrace and says - Er dorkar chhilo na Baba.(It was not necessary Son ) Gogol replies - Aamar iccha korlo Ma ( I wanted to, Mother)
Thus begins a new chapter in his life. His journey towards finding himself. The differences between him and Maxine makes them separate out. When Ashima's suggestion to make up with her doesn't seem to work, she tries to make him meet a Bengali girl, Moushumi Majumber ( Zuliekha Robinson) who lives in New York. Going on a blind date, engineered by their mothers is a queer idea for both but they seem to have an instant liking for each other, despite the small hiccups Gogol had while trying to converse with her when they were kids. All he remembered about her was her saying in a heavily accented British tone - I detest American television.

They get married but not for long.
She has a French lover whom he discovers and she reasons- " I felt stuck like my Mom"
Her initial reflection:"Maybe it's not enough that we both are Bengalis. We are too different"- was probably a premonition.

Ashima decides to sell their house in the suburbia and return to India to continue her pursuit of Indian Classical Music (Vocal). But gets to know about Gogol's estrangement with his wife and wants to stay back but he says he can manage. He comes across the book his father had gifted him on his graduation day- The collected stories by Nikolai Gogol.
On its first page are written the words- "The man who gave you his name , from the man who gave you your name"

>>> Spoiler Warning Ends here <<<

Our generation has its own set of difficulties and frustrations- the Ivy League B-school that we want to make through or the 120k package that has just slipped by or the perfect mate who could have been but did not. Our parents had a world entirely different. Their responsibilities, their aspirations, their trying to come to terms with reality. How much of it do we understand? Or even acknowledge the efforts they had to put in to make us what we are today.
The closing statement -"To our parents- who gave us everything" totally did me in.

When a movie or a book or even a piece of music composition touches me, I make it a point to spread the word. I believe if I tell 10 people about it, at least 3 will bother to have a look and at least 1 will feel the way I felt. And the experience can be enriching... and sometimes enlightening.

Shoehorning a novel that spans across three decades into a 2 hour movie is hardly an enviable job. The time changes might not appear smooth sometimes. But show me a better adaptation and I'll believe that it could have been possibly done.

You have to watch "The Namesake" to know why it deserves raving reviews. Period.

19 comments:

Saurabh said...

Her initial reflection:"Maybe it's not enough that we both are Bengalis. We are too different"- was probably a premonition.

In a world which is constantly shrinking and when it is easier to reach out to anyone on this planet thanks to the advance communications this era has been witnessed to , we are drifting apart.
It is not an Indian phenomenon when I say this, I am not talking about Caste or Creed but even world wide the rift has never been wider Be it religious or color or race it is there and the trouble is it in your face and taunts you.

What was limited to few fanatics has spread as a disease to many amongst us for whom the glorification of their own ethnicity is most important.
No one wants to loose out in this race for supremacy.
What is left behind are the emotions and the love for people.

I might be drifting away from the topic "The Namesake" but in essense that is what the story meant a journey to find the true meaning of your existence and where you fit in in the global scheme of things

arnab said...

i loved the book. it has quite a bit of autobiographical undertones. after literally months of waiting for it, the movie finally released yesterday in baltimore! (i don't get the deliberately crummy marketing by the studio) hoping to catch it by next weekend. will post comments on the movie once i see it.

sangram said...

..good briefing . thought of adding the important part..after reading nikolay gogol's online short story "The Overcoat"

A quote from the book namesake:

"Ashoke decides to keep the explanation of his son's name to himself....At the door he pauses, turns around. "Do you know what Dostoevsky once said?"
Gogol shakes his head.
" 'We all came out of Gogol's overcoat.' "
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It will make sense to you one day."
"
The movie could nt capture the philosophy behind gogol's overcoat. The overcoat signifies something as new and old : the contextual meaning being the importance of both change and tradition. To make a short summary of nikolays gogols "The Overcoat", an old russian man is broke and he has to wear his old worn out winter overcoat. He goes to the tailor, but the tailor refuses to mend the same, and tells him to wait for a new one. He couldnt afford a new one, but he started saving money to buy a new one, and finally he does. In a couple of days, it gets stolen and he is yet again left with his old overcoat, and finally bedridden with a severe illness, he passes away, still wearing the old overcoat.
This gives us the idea as to what ashoke wanted to say, or rather dostoevsky wanted to say: Its hard to forget something that is old, and its hard to accept a new definition of the same old culture or tradition that we are succumbed to:. (there will always be a self defined hindrance or a notion of not accepting the change delivered from the outside society).
The movie was unable to deliver the main philosophical essence as to why Ashoke was always referring to gogols overcoat every now and then: It has a similar interpretation as the story of the old guy starving to get a new overcoat: Ashoke re-lived after the train accident with gogols overcoat still with him. It was like an old event (analogy to the winter coat) that started a whole new life for him :)

sudipto said...

I didn't get tickets this weekend man....i really want to see the movie...waiting for it..!!

candid diary said...

During Ashoke’s train trip to visit his grandfather he was reading ‘Overcoat’ (1842) by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol incidentally spent much of his life outside his homeland.
Both ‘Overcoat’ and Nikolai Gogol had great influence on Russian literature, thus generating the phrase attributed to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and also Turgenev - "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'." The central theme of ‘Overcoat’ has been interpreted in many ways but there is no way you can probably explain a connection or comparison between the maverick and the old. In ‘Overcoat’ the protagonist, Akaky progresses from being an introvert and hopeless non-entity to one with high self-esteem – expectations being raised by the overcoat. Even if you imagine, in a remote sense, Ashoke’s newly gained status with the ‘overcoat’ he, unlike Akaky, does not loose it. Appearance of Akaky’s ghost in ‘Overcoat’ predicted things to come in Russia.

‘Namesake’, on the other hand, portrays the conflict of modernity and tradition at a cultural crossroads in US background. Yes, it’s not possible to portray any novel encompassing three generation in a 2/3 hrs film. Satyjit Ray had to make a trilogy of ‘Apu’ to narrate the story of three generations.

DJ said...

have watched this one...
its nicely made... but i m sure the book would be better...

Aparna Kar said...

I was intrigued by the intensity of influence "The Overcoat" had on Ashok. I couldn't fully comprehend it then though there are books and stories which have sculptured my thoughts.
Readers who want to read the story may visit this

Aparna Kar said...

@arnab and sudipto
Watch it soon and let us know your experience. And about the marketing of the film- I don't know whether it was crummy or engineered to do so. Strategies can appear weird sometimes. But one thing is for sure- what better way to market something than by the word of the mouth? Even digital marketing falls behind :)

Awaiting your comments. Ciao

***That reminds me of the standard Italian schiavo and that leads to Terri Schiavo and her right-to-die and its impact on end-of-life medical ethics. Law of Association of thoughts you see.
The story is a bit depressing. But those to care to know can see this

Aparna Kar said...

@sangram
Thanks for sharing the essence of the story. I am yet to read "The Overcoat" but I believe your interpretation could be the most apt. I use "your interpretation" because most short stories leave the readers with a craving for more. A lot of blanks which can be filled only by employing an individual's own imagination, his set of experiences in life and hence his mental make-up.
Your saying that
": It's hard to forget something that is old, and it's hard to accept a new definition of the same old culture or tradition that we are succumbed to: (there will always be a self defined hindrance or a notion of not accepting the change delivered from the outside society)." is what appealed to me the most.

Aparna Kar said...

@candid diary
Your "comparison between the maverick and the old" reminds me of a Tagore song:
Tomar holo shuru, amaar holo shaara
Tomay amaay mile emni bohe dhaara

Tomar jole baati, tomar ghore saathi
Amaar tore raati, amaar tore taara

Tomar acche daanga, amaar acche jol
Tomar bosey thaaka, amaar cholachol

Tomar haathe roy, amaar haathe khoy
Tomar mone bhoy, aamar bhoyohaara


This could as well have been a song a grandfather sings to his grandchild when he has reached the dusk of his life and the child, his legacy to the world, has just begun to see the dawn of its life.

Change is inevitable. And probably the most desirable thing in life. We sprint through our course of life because we don't want stagnancy- the symbol of death.

Ashoke's endeavors to begin a new life in a new world, and his explaining to Ashima that America is a land of opportunities- and that will help Gogol script a better life, when she says : Aami Gogol k ekaa manush kortey paarbo na (I won't be able to raise Gogol alone) is a clear indication of the fact that progress for Ashoke meant and primarily so: better opportunities for his progeny.

No father would want his child to bear the hardship he had to go through. But that does not mean the child won't have to face his/her share of troubles.

Gogol's conflict: accepting his roots vs blending in the culture he was born and brought up with is very genuine.

He undergoes a visible transformation after his father's death, but it is each man to his own. He has to find his identity-alone. His name is denotative of a more intense conflict he has to try and resolve inside himself.

At the end, Gogol is shown to be immersed in the pages of Nikolai's "The Overcoat". It was more than attempt to find a meaning to his name. It was a purpose of his life. And by that I don't mean a job or a career.

When I was 15, I wanted to change my name from "Aparna" to " Apurvaa" because I had another girl in my class by the name "Aparna"
I wanted my name to be unique like me. I didn't want to share it with anyone else. I might have had my own reasons.

But my father reasoned "Apurvaa" was quite common too. I decided to wait before I signed an affidavit to change my name.
Eventually I realized it was not my name that gave me an identity but what I did and who I would become would give meaning to my name.

And now since I have already got several publications under my name, I don't think I will want to change it ever. In fact, I have begin to love it. And it's not vanity. It respect for that person who has this name. Or for any other person who has a name. Any name.
"Lobongolota" or even "Jamunarani".

sudipto said...

thats true...name is not anybody's identity...its just a way to call u...but its on u to make ur name ur identity to stand out of the crowd...!! if i wud hv thot like u i should hv changed my name on the first day...."sudipto" i think is the most common name.. :-)!

Rizu said...

Once a bong, always a bong. Or is it the other way round?
The subtleness of the film was that the 1st generation dint find USA so attractive in terms of culture. By culture I mean personal space(both physical and non-physical), attitre, and food.
Ashoke came here to as a vagabond to earn his freedom from living in Bengal.
Ashima came here because she wanted to pick the best of the lot.
None of them changed much, atleast not Ashima.
Again, the 2nd generation was attracted naturally to the culture, but at the end embraces the Indian culture of marrying the mother-liked-woman. Strange was that fact for me to accept!

Aparna Kar said...

@rizu
A marriage that didn't last you mean.
I have mentioned before that when you tie the wedlock, you don't just get married to a person, you wed into his/her family, customs, traditions- even the style of attire.
It is , therefore, of some consequence to have certain similarities where you can identify yourself with.
But it is not everything. It might not mean anything if you belong to the same social strata or have an equivalent level of education- if at the end, you are entirely different individuals with different expectations from life.

I have seen some of the most hilarious outcomes of an arranged marriage. An some other really tragic ones. The social engineering performed by the "wiser" generation seemed to me a mere mockery of the whole institution called marriage.

What is "beauty" or probably " a ground of similarity" for the parents might not be so the prospective bride or groom.

Personally, I think Gogol's wedding to Moushumi was a farce. Owing to their shared culture and background, he was merely trying to explore the romantic possibilities with her after his break up with Maxine. It had no genuine potential to blossom into a successful relationship.

Unions which are most rushed into are the ones which die in the cradle they are born in - whether engendered by the eyes, or attainment of some immediate interest.

Something which should last a lifetime will come unscathed when tested in the flame of adversity-like pure gold. But the more the impurities, which I count as synthesized emotions- the more the chances that it will fail at the merest sign of an approaching storm. And an abandonment would ensue.

So, hold not the hand that walks beside you when you are in the limelight and in grace but hold on to the hand that holds you when have tripped over and fallen. Because that is the very ground of a lasting relationship..

No Name said...

seems the novel deserves it ..yet to read/watch the story to have an opinion of my own..

thanks for the spoiler warning..shall read(and/or)watch and get back smtime..

Crescent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crescent said...

I read the book an year ago but some sentences in the book still lingers in my mind.

Especially when Gogol realizes why his father decided to keep that name,he tonsuring his head when his father passes away which need not have done it but wanted to are some such instances.

Enjoyed reading the book thoroughly.

It happens with everyone.Your identity is associated with your name.While you are walking on the road and someone calls your name,even though the voice is unfamiliar you still turn back impromptu as the name has been a part of us all through our life.
Even though you rechristen it people remember by your old name.An instance where in I think Mousami still remembers Gogol and not Nikhil.

Good review.keep it up.

arnab said...

ahh! finally watched the movie. of course, considering the differences of format, it will be unfair to compare the movie with the book - it is invariably more difficult to capture the same detail and complexity on screen. having said that, the single character that was sidelined the most in the movie was moushumi. in the book you can understand how or why she and gogol grew apart in their marriage, including how she got carried away and start her affair with the first man who had touched her, dimitri desjardin, which, if you ask me, is a much sexier name than pierre, as it was in the movie :-)

sangram's interpretation of overcoat is interesting, but i don't think it's relevant to this story, since i definitely didn't get that angle even from the book.

surely it's the conflict between holding onto an old identity while trying to acquire a new one (or acquiring a new one even if you don't want to) is central to the story, which was captured pretty well in the movie. probably not something you will call brilliant, but not too shabby either. tabu was great, irfan good as usual; only at the most intense moments his accent seemed too forced to sound "indian". kal penn was good too, specially considering what he is usually known for :-) the trickiest part, i think, was the ending. the ending in the book is great, and is absolutely impossible to capture on camera. given that the ending of the movie wasn't bad either. to sum it up, i would say it was a very good on-screen adaptation - a tough job, well done.

oh, and rizu, you so have no idea :-)

saikat said...

just back from another bout of illness :((

saw the movie yesterday...am not a critic per se..so wont comment much aprt from the fact...yes..after a long wait.watched a quality movie by a director of Indian genre..hats off..

Aparna Kar said...

Read what Jhumpa Lahiri has to say about her name :My family finds my name odd, inappropriate