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At The Movies: Living in America: The Namesake ***

Mira Nair’s The Namesake is both a wonderful film and a long slog. It is so long that you pass your inner whiner long before the film’s ultimate end. You have come so far with the film’s characters that you feel as though you know them personally. That is not to be interpreted as a recommendation. It takes a certain type of personality to be able to withstand the infinite nature of this epic.

Director Nair has made a film that was clearly close to her heart, maybe even too close. It is perhaps, ultimately, a film that will appeal mostly to others who have experienced the same type of isolation and emptiness in the immigrant experience. America, as depicted in The Namesake, is at once the land of endless opportunity as much as it is a place for shallow people with no sense of what is most important in life (family and tradition, mostly).

The beautiful actress Tabu plays Ashima, a young Bengali bride who meets her husband the traditional way; it is arranged. Her husband, Ashoke Ganguli, plans to take her with him to America, a place full of mystery and wonder for Ashima. When she first meets her future husband, the first thing she sees are his “made in USA” shoes at her doorstep. She tries them on. They seem like a good fit. They are married, and the Ganguli’s lives are launched in the USA.

This is good news at times – no boiling water to drink it, gas all day and night, laundromats, electricity, hot and cold water. And bad news at times – Ashima is all alone. She is separate from her family and must depend almost entirely on Ashoke. The two grow to love each other deeply, more deeply than many of us living today can even begin to imagine. There is a devotion and obligation from a different time.

They give birth to a son and a daughter. The son (Kal Penn) is given the name of Ashoke’s favorite writer, Gogol. He is teased so often about it as he grows up that he starts to hate it. More and more, his hatred of his name turns into hatred of his culture and background. He turns away from family, trying to assimilate into the American way of life (art museums, fancy drinks, penthouse apartments, a very WASPish white girlfriend).

When tragedy strikes, however, Gogol begins to see himself and his place differently. Where does he belong? In India or America? Such is the complex reality all immigrants face coming here. They can have the American dream – almost anyone can if they work hard enough. But in the process, they lose what it is about life they value most.

The Namesake is enjoyable despite the fact that it seems like Nair, working with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, tried to fit too much in. At some point, the story isn’t enough. For some it will be, no question. But for others, the story might just seem too alien to be universal enough to fall in love with.

This is often the case with films about the immigrant experience, such as In America. It’s difficult to root for characters who are more unhappy once they come here. Even still, there is so much richness to soak in with Nair’s film that it mostly overrides any irrational resentment. The beautiful women, the lovely music, the epic love story at the film’s center – even if it doesn’t give you everything you want, it gives you what you very likely need.

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