Movie Review: The Namesake - The Shoes We Walk In

April 02, 2007

It all begins when a train to Jamshedpur meets with an accident, leaving few survivors. One such survivor is the young and bookish Ashok Ganguli (Irrfan Khan). Only minutes before the accident, while he is reading Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat, Ashok is advised by a fellow traveler to 'pack a pillow and see the world'. Once he recovers, he does just that and heads off to the 'land of opportunities'.

A few winters later, Ashok is in Calcutta to pick his bride. The first time we see Ashima (Tabu), she is blissfully lost in her riyaaz, singing to her heart's content. When Ashok and his clan are over to 'see' her, she secretly tries his shoes on-a metaphor that will recur throughout the story. Ashok's shoes fit Ashima beautifully, and she is more than willing to walk in them half way across the world to New York. Though the novel has Ashok studying at Harvard, Mira Nair uses New York. This is perhaps a calculated cinematic license that allows Ms Nair to use shots of the Brooklyn bridge (or was it Manhattan?) in NY and the Howrah bridge in Calcutta to bridge the two cultures. So many times in the film, we cut from one bridge to another and it takes us a split second to realize that we've crossed cultures: another effective metaphor. Before we move on, I must mention my favorite shot in the film: a close-up silhouette of Ashima's hand, waving goodbye through a window as Ashok fades away in the snow. The scene is a poignant pointer to what will follow.

Ashima and Ashok have two children: a son and a daughter. The son, Gogol aka Nikhil Ganguli (Kal Penn), grows up to be a much taunted teen, what with his namesake being a psychotic, suicidal writer. Despite his father's many attempts at connecting with him, Gogol is determined to shake this baggage off, and has his name changed to Nikhil. What he's really looking to shake off, of course, is his identity. But that's never easy. No matter how hard he tries to avoid his parents and blend with those of his all American girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett); no matter how hard he tries to be Nick, life (and Ashok, of course) will keep reminding him that he is Gogol.

The first such reminder is a touching one: Ashok tells him that the reason he named him Gogol is, in fact, that train accident. Ever since then, Gogol has been associated, in Ashok's mind, with the gift of life. Upon learning this, for the first time Nikhil appreciates why he is Gogol to Ashok. Alas, the second reminder is a rude shock. A few days into his semester at Ohio, Ashok suddenly dies of a heart attack. Nikhil walks into Ashok's empty hotel room in Cleveland, and steps gingerly into his dead father's shoes. And the meaning in the metaphor dawns upon us: Ashok, we realize, was always comfortable in his skin. Hence, to walk in his shoes is not to be him, but to be your self. Nikhil's transition, though, is not yet complete. Maxine now reminds him of everything he is not: she shows up in black in a house where all the Indian mourners are in white. And even though she takes off her shoes (metaphor intended) before stepping into an Indian house in mourning, Nikhil's own guilt pushes him to the other extreme. In true Hindu mourning fashion, he shaves his head off and breaks up with Maxine. But there is a silver lining: when performing his father's rites, he calls himself Gogol.
Later, his marriage to the Bengali-British Maushami (Zuleikha Robinson) is destroyed by her infidelity (by contrast, his sister's American husband will continue to love her), making him see, at last, the true middle ground of his bi-cultural identity.

In life and in death, Ashok proves to be the guardian angel for Gogol and, of course, for Ashima. He protects them in the best possible way: by forcing them to be independent. Note Ashima's post facto rationalization that Ashok went to Ohio just to teach her how to live alone; when, in fact, we saw him a few scenes back, urging Ashima to accompany him. Ashima, walking in Ashok's shoes, lets go of Gogol and moves back to Calcutta. And the film's concluding scene rhymes with Ashima's opening scene: we leave her, as we first met her, blissfully singing her heart out in Calcutta.

Irrfan Khan pours his heart into the character, managing to move you to tears and make you smile; so that when he is gone, we, too, miss him. Kal Penn is a protagonist for all seasons. From snubbing his father as a head banging teenager; to breaking down at his dead father's empty, crumpled hotel bed; and everywhere in between-he is at ease and in character. Tabu graces Ashima's role, effortlessly growing from the playful lass to the restrained woman(note her shock when she hears of Ashok's death).

Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's book works because she captures that elusive Holy Grail of adaptations: the book's spirit. The languor of the film sits well with the large canvas and the setting (who ever heard of a fast-paced Bengali life?) The metaphors and lyrical touches (note the classic boatman's song in the Ganges) give the story a poetic feel. The seamless interspersing of shots between India and the US, and the evocative, intimate flashbacks capture the immigrant experience wonderfully.

Throughout the film, Nair sprinkles the vagaries of both cultures with humor: note the red chili powder in Rice Krispies, or the funky wedding night song ditty between Maushami and Gogol. The skin show in their first sexual encounter, however, is gratuitous. Nair and cinematographer Frederick Elmes don't paint the two cultures in strikingly different hues, thus preserving the seamlessness of cultures and the universality of the story (Ashima, we're reminded, means one without boundaries). Nitin Sawhney's background score is rich with ragas. But above all, Nair's actors stand out for their authenticity in costume, make up and mannerisms (note how Ashima hums, as singers often do). True to their particular milieu, they tell us the universal story of finding peace in the face of tragedy.

A telecom engineer with an incorrigible itch to write.
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April 2, 2007
02:42 PM

when one travel thrue every citis nowahdays in the amerika, euurope sees lot of piople with the camera, lightes, lenses shooting movie everywere. if u asked these piople who they be, they say they be from the boooolllywood. then if u asked them why they shoot there in the forein citi, is it bicos of story ? they say no, it is bicos too many shantytown to shoot a nice movie in the bombay.

April 2, 2007
03:37 PM

Wonderful review, PH. I must see this film now!

April 2, 2007
05:48 PM

Thanks, Desigirl! Do go and see it, you'll like it.

April 3, 2007
01:18 PM

wow! such a wonderful review.. i have started likin the film even more after reading this review! congrats1

April 4, 2007
05:53 PM

Thanks, Charuhas, for the kind comment!

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