Namesake —the Review

Whether you appreciate or feel indifferent towards “The Namesake” depends solely on how much empathy you feel towards its protagonists and how much of your life’s own dilemmas you find reflected in its narrative. This is indeed the key to the appreciation of most non-fantasy, non-escapist films but it holds especially true for “The Namesake” dependent as it on the believability of its characters: if you cannot connect with them, you will just feel as if you are watching a slow mini-series built around a wafer-thin premise (that of an American Bengali coming to terms with the name ‘Gogol’ that his dad gave him) [As an aside: For Karl Kal Penn, playing a character with the name Gogol is many steps up (or down) from his character in “The Rise of Taj” whose last name was Bada-Lund-a-bad) ]

As for me, I could connect. Having spent a few years in the US and Canada as a kid, I could totally relate to the Bangali parties as shown in the movie, chuckling at the attention to small details like the seating arrangement, the way the Jhumpa-mashis talk and the wall-hangings down to the kid falling asleep on the carpet. Ashoke Ganguly, essayed with immense finesse by the talented Irfan Khan, with his speech inflections and mannerisms, reminded me so much of people whom I know, including sometimes myself. The generational alienation between Gogol (Kal Penn and his hunched shoulders, bored expression and scruffy hair reminding me so much of an American-Indian cousin of mine) and his parents, magnified by the cultural divide, is shown with great sensitivity with none of the cartoonish, oversimplified ABCD vs First Generation Indian face-offs that have become the staple of the serious NRI film.

However for those whom “the Namesake” does not strike a chord, there will be many things to nitpick about: mostly the anachronisms evident in the modern advertisements in the background while showing Calcutta in the 70s and the 80s. And of course Tabu’s accent and acting, which even I, who really liked the film, could scarcely ignore —she was miscast, her acting was mediocre (especially compared to Irfan Khan and even Kal Penn) and her dialogue delivery jarring.

Not a classic. Not by any means. But most definitely a movie that moves, however that too only if you find a little bit of yourself in it.

45 thoughts on “Namesake —the Review

  1. I feel honored to be the first commenter!!

    Well, as to me, I loved The Namesake, inspite of not having experienced first-hand any of what was depicted.

    I feel Tabu has acted extremely well. Though I am no expert on Bengali pronounciations, I feel Tabu has imbibed the speech inflections and mannerisms quite well and looked quite authentic.

    Though maybe the movie tended to slightly stretch and lose it’s plot at the end.

    Most importantly, having read the book, this was one movie where I did not feel that the movie didn’t do justice to the book.

  2. I thought then name was Kal Penn (as from his actual name Kalpen Suresh Modi) and not “Karl Penn”.

  3. His name is KAL Penn, not Karl.

    His real name is Kalpen Modi, but because he went to my Alma Mater (UPENN), and because he needed a more anglicised screen name, he shortened it to Kal Penn.

    (but there’s no karl anywhere in it).

    Just a correction.

  4. Agree. Kalpen changing to Kal Penn and acting in ”namesake”. Curious coincidence ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. oh boy…GB, everyone (including me) pounced on ur Ka(r)l Penn variation….(was it a Microsoft word spellcheck thing where it automatically replaced Kal with the more identifiable Karl).

  6. The Book was brilliant and remains one of my favorite books ever. Jhumpa brought about the smaller nuances of culture differences brilliantly in the book – The movie did a decent job of adapting it. I liked the movie, and I actually thought Tabu was great. But yes, Kal Penn surprised me, and Irfan, well was brilliant as he usually is.

    Now if only I could get hold of a Max somehow ๐Ÿ˜€


  7. For all those above who pointed out that it was Kal and not Karl….well if you look through the post, you will see that I have spelt the name as both Karl as well as Kal. So yes I do know his real name and why it is “Kal”…the Karl was a typo… ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Can you please switch on full post in the feed?

  9. Would’ve expected a longer post on this. Well, never mind.

  10. You really mean Indian-American when you say American-Indian. The former are brown people who dress gangsta, the latter Native Americans.

  11. His name is Kalpen. Kalpen – Kal Penn.

  12. Pretty accurate reveiew, I would say. Glad to see that you liked it – I would have thought the inconsistencies would have put you off. I guess you’re right – it’s about how much you can identify with the characters.

    If Mira Nair had worked a bit to remove the jarring bits (which any Bengali would be able to pounce on), it could have been a classic. Pity! But then, that’s the difference between (say) a great director like Satyajit Ray and a good one like Meera Nair.

  13. Thanks much!

  14. Nice review… uncharacteristically easy on the sarcasm I daresay… I guess you really liked the movie…

  15. @sayon
    The jarring bits
    That is why Satyajit Ray decided NOT to make a Malgudi movie as he was totally clueless about the nuances down south.
    That is why all those Hollywood Russian pix like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ look artificial to the people who know Russia.
    The same reason why ‘Bend it like Beckham’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’ WORKS SUPERBLY.

  16. @All: Shubho Noboborsho. I, however, am in a contrarian minority, having not liked the film. However, GB is right, it does evoke emotion and even some identification, and is reasonably accurate when it comes to description, at times, of the life of a first generation academic and his alienated children.

  17. Hi GB,

    Now awaiting your take on Sanjaya Malakar !!!

  18. SHUBHO NOBOBORSHO everyone !

    Haven’t seen Namesake but looking forward to it.
    As for accents and pronunciation , I think by now we shud all have gotten used to the “Call-Kota” and ‘kee bawl-chhi’ brand of Bengali spoken in Hindi films . ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. The fundamental issue here is about migration, and about location. It is also a story written by an Indian-American, about immigrants, for immigrants (in English), and made by immigrants (Meera Nair and her crew).

    Obviously, people who have a burning desire to ‘belong’ to the inhabitants of the land of milk and honey (ref: NRN Murthy), are all misty eyed about the immense identity crisis of the migratory birds. The birds in namesake, didn’t have a choice. They were forced to stay in the US at gunpoint.

    ‘Never again will a single story be told as if it was the only one’ (ref: John Berger). Did Irfan Khan’s parents find any mention in the movie? I haven’t seen it, and read the novel two years ago. If a Bengali ever makes a movie on these issues, I hope the director brings out the pain of those who are left behind and the utter selfishness of those who jettison their past. It is a game – it starts with animal instincts (survival, mainly) and then the beast starts flexing its muscles – they want it all.

    There is a pattern in all this. It is a power struggle between those who have mastered the text, and those who do not know how to tell their stories. Like my thakma.

    The best way to deal with the cunningness of upwardly mobile urban upstarts is to leave clever people with their cleverness. There are other stories, of other people.

  20. @Naiverealist: My dear fellow, people have emigrated since time immemorial in search of greener pastures. They had to leave their loved ones behind. In many cases, it was not selfishness, but a stark necessity. If our ancestors hadn’t done so, a group of monkeys would have starved to death in Africa, and we wouldn’t have been born.

    Yes, those left behind suffer loneliness. That’s easy to understand. But don’t condemn the ones who left as being selfish. Many sent (and send) money back to India, supporting families whoc would not be supported if these people were in dead-end jobs back in India (the job-market in India has opened up recently, and that too in a few subjects). Emigration was often the only road for these people.

    Many communities in India have grown prosperous on the basis of the dollars sent back by emigrating sons and daughters. Selfish? I think not.

    There is loneliness when you leave home. Even if it’s not too far away – like Delhi was for me. From childhood, when I developed a love for chemistry, my parents drilled it into me that I would have to leave, as there were no jobs for me in Kolkata. But that didn’t make me feel any better when I was staying in a single room, with no company, with the rain and powercut making life even more depressing than usual.

    At least I could stay in India. Those who went farther had to live in a different world, a different climate, a different culture. Don’t slam those who braved it out. I couldn’t do it even for the money. Don’t sneer at those who would.

    The Namesake doesn’t talk about whether Ashoke sent money to his parents, or how often he wrote to them or called them up. It’s a detail that’s irrelevant to the plot. The focus is not on the loneliness of his parents – that is the plot for another story, by someone who knows that world better than Jhumpa Lahiri. As a work of fiction, as a movie, it focusses on a single aspect of life. It’s foolish to expect it to mirror every aspect of society. In the story it’s irrelevant, even if it is not in life.

  21. I haven’t been able to see the movie… no chance in hell it will be released in state college pa. But I have read the book and love it. And if the movie is faithfu to the book, which knowing Mira Nair I am sure it will be, I disagree that it will appeal only to those who can identify with the cultural and contextual nuances. It just is a superb story, whether you know bengali and bong-NRI culture or not.

    An excellent illustration of this is the fact that the person who really hounded me to read the book was my French Canadian friend who has never met any Bengalis.

  22. Reading the book as of now and yet to see the film. But was a little surprised by your comment on Tabu. I think her performance in Maqbool was one of the best I have ever seen. And the role of a mild mannered woman in alien surroundings, with a little world of her own seems to be very Tabu, who is hardly ever over the top (I am not speaking about Ruk Ruk Ruk days!!:-)) But well, I am yet to watch it.

  23. True. Me not having gone through similar emotions, found it plain silly. Still wonder how the book (The Turncoat/Raincoat whatever it was) saves Irfan Khan’s character in the train and whats the reason of naming the book/movie ‘The Namesake’ as I find no great significance of the name in the movie.

  24. Chocloater er shei baksho ta purono hoye geche…
    Aaj keno jani aar seta khulte icche kore na…
    Kemon jani mon bolche “Jenny” aasbe na tai ??????
    Onek to holo ebar tahole ghore fera jak…
    Sudhu fele rekhe jao onekta megh……
    …. kichu kuasha aar niye jao bigoto bochor gulor bhalobasha

  25. Tabu is surely one of the most over-rated actors in Bollywood. Thanks for being politically incorrect.I have been wanting to see atleast one guy say this.

    The apt choice for this role would have been Konkana Sen Sharma.

  26. hmmm….I feel we like a movie only when we can relate to it, or relate to any of its character OR we like a movie when its totally fantasyland-ish kinds….

    So here in this case, to me it is a sincere effort by Mira Nair, on personal level I could identify with loneliness Tabu faces in initial, that ‘slight chill’ in air, that sounds-of-silence when one can even hear tiny droplets falling, that helplessness when one hears some bad news from back home!!

    Move made me sad, so many so little things accumulated and made me sad in the end.

    Btw, Even after your clarification, I like the way everyone wants to correct you about ‘Kal’ or ‘Karl’ Penn, and how one even managed to drag his Alma-mater too ๐Ÿ™‚
    No offence to anyone, its just that I found it amusing ๐Ÿ™‚

  27. i thoroughly felt that emotions that were evident in the story was totally amiss in the film.the first half was very much ordinary.the book was no doubt far more touchy than the film.
    monsoon wedding was indeed more impressive.

  28. @Rima
    Thanks for reminding!
    Shubho nobo borsho to all!

  29. @lalbadshah- The name of the short story you are talking about is ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol.

    Ashok met with a train accident some 200 miles from Howrah and he was reading the book when the accident took place. When rescue workers were scavenging the wreck for bodies, they saw the book held by the outstretched hand of Ashok.

    Thats why when Gogol asks, “Do I remind you of that night?”, he answers, “You remind me of everything that followed.”

    So Gogol is the namesake of Ashoke’s favorite Russian author. Gogol stands as a symbol of the past and of his Indian roots. Nikhil however is the Gogol who is anything but Indian, by a combination of design, accident and choice. Nikhil is what Gogol is not. He is trying hard to forget his roots and is a new person altogether. But he finally makes peace with himself and realizes himself after his father’s untimely demise and whatever that followed. The different names help to characterize the different sides of the same person which in turn mirror the different societies and cultures of which Gogol is a confluence of.

    @all- subho nababarsha.

  30. Well said Yourfan2.

    I don’t share the experience of many of you guys who form the great Indian diaspora. Hence, I will perhaps not be touched by Namesake with kind the kind of resonance that it touched you. But still, I liked the film a lot. It’s a very sensitive depiction of layers of emotions that must be gripping migrants who take up a number of personas in his new land of residence. Who is he? The one who came from Bengal or Gujarat or wherever, retaining dollops of that identity? Or the one presses back the past to assume an identity in a completely transformed context? Or both? Very often the two must be criss-crossing to form a complex mosaic of emotions. And it would be still more complex for a boy like Gogol who despite his Indian roots is born and bred in a different land. Hence his evolution from yet another American kid to a tragedy-torn youth seeking to understand his roots. I think Mira Nair brought out these layers very well. And, by the way, I liked Tabu, esp her crinkled hair.

  31. Arnab:

    Nice review. Having read the book and heard the audio tapes of the same, I couldn’t wait to watch the movie. I went, I saw and I was, to be honest, disappointed. I guess my expectations were a bit high. Looking back, I think the book has too many personal touches, too many feelings, too many intangibles, to be captured in a screen-play—no matter how good you are. I guess the last 8 years here in the US established a deeper connection with every page of the book. I could pretty-much browse through my future life while I was reading it. No wonder I expected a LOT more out of the movie.

    Irfan Khan and Tabu–both were huge let-downs for me. I truly feel Meera Nair could have done better with bengali actors/actresses–trust me, I am NOT pushing any agenda here. Mere personal observations only. I think the movie failed to portray the loneliness, the frustrations, the solitudes, the struggles of Ashima that makes the book simply amazing. I also hates the effort to sprinkle some nudity to the story–it was misplaced, unnecessary, and juvenile at best. It did not add any value to the story-line.

    Anyways, I do want to add that the older american couple who sat beside me, cried and laughed as the movie went along–so did my wife and I. Well, I guess that does prove, no matter what my thoughts are, the movie did connect at the right levels.

  32. Yourfan writes:
    @GB: Finally I saw the movie and really liked it but tabu’s accent was really preposterous. I honestly donรขโ‚ฌโ„ขt understand why MN did not take any Bengali actress as if there is any dearth of good actress in WB!! Also Tabu really looked old in the shots where she was getting married and then where she started her life in USรขโ‚ฌโ€œ like when she was crying in the bathroom after the washing debacle. Gogol and Ashok was more convincing in their acting and diction. Barring some faults it is a good movie.
    The sad part is that we all know the travail of loneliness and the painful void one feels in a detached land of opportunity yet we mesmerize ourselves only to get killed metaphorically like those insects rushing to the bright lights.

  33. MN first approached Konkona for the role of mother. But she refused it as it was clashing with her commitment to her mother’s film 15, Park Avenue.

  34. Totally agree with your view about Tabu. Her acting was very, very affected. She claimed to be 45, but acted and behaved like a 60 year old. I know 50-year old who’re much sprightlier than her portrayal of Ashima Ganguly.

  35. Hi Arnabb (?),
    This mail is long due.
    I am addicted to your blog ๐Ÿ™‚
    Loved this review and so much like my review (IF I’d reviewed :D:D)
    Loved the way Irfan acted with his eyes and the seeting under feel one gets to feel, as a viewer!
    Also what I did not like, is that the other (Read Goras) in ths movie did not develop as characters and ended up being stereotypes and 2D characters!
    Would’ve LOVED to see Konkana in Tabu’s role ๐Ÿ™‚

    Loved the Spidey-3 review (recall that the most), which helped me undo the pain Raimi put me thro’ esp since it is Spidey that we are talking about ๐Ÿ™‚

    Have you seen this link(?):


  36. Not a classic. Not by any means. But most definitely a movie that moves, however that too only if you find a little bit of yourself in it.
    – And yes, I connected to it at various levels and moved me! Some parts overwhelmingly poignant!

  37. hi GB..i do read ur blogs from time to time and i really love them…though am commenting on this a bit too late,still i’d like to share my views about the movie with u..i have read the book,and i believe anybody who has read the book would agree that the book is much more moving than the draw an example,the scene where ashok was presenting “the overcoat” to gogol on his 14th birthday..that was a scene so wonderfully and emotionally described in the book.I still clearly remember how much it touched me.but the way it was shown in the movie was very ordinary and is not even comparable to the one in the book.moreover,the bengali pronounciation(for both tabu and irfan) were unexpectedly bad and i strongly believe that bengali dialogues in the movie could easily have been done away with..overall,even i though i could very much relate myself to the movie,I believe Mira Nair could have done a much better job with such a wonderful novel..

  38. No wonder, U liked it… How can U dislike being a Bong???

  39. Of course you didnt like Tabu, she wasnt Bong. Will you Bongs just appreciate good acting as opposed to silly “Ohhh she is not a bong”. There are lots of terrible Bong actors and Tabus performance here was flawless

  40. As an Indian in America with growing kids, I can totally relate.. this movie rips your heart…. no wonder many of us leave for India after many years in US…. this movie has a special place in my heart.

  41. I do agree with your view.

    You can go through my review on โ€˜Between The Linesโ€™:


  42. I had mixed opinions. Overall, The movie seemed more interesting than the book. I liked the characterization of Ashima in the book. I cried when I read the part where she packs up to move to India and goes down the memory line and realizes how she might miss her children.
    Tabu looked too old to play a doe-eyed bride. She tried to overdo her bengali-ness and 45-years of experience! otoh I liked the guys more in the movie than in the book. I was tired of the never-ending “gogol” conflict of the protagonist in the book.

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