The name game

I blogged my reactions to The Namesake when I first saw it in May this year. You can check out the blog here. On a second viewing it worked just as well, but I got even more from it. I’ve softened a little on Kal Penn’s performance, but I’m now an even bigger fan of Tabu and Irrfan Khan (the star of Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, despite Angelina Jolie’s top billing).

This time I was more conscious of how clever the script is with the references to names and naming and also the extent to which Mira Nair pays hommage to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak (and makes Bengali jokes). The central question is, I think, how the film creates a delicious tension between its focus on Ashima as against the father-son relationship. I’m still not sure who is at the centre of the story. What does anyone else think?

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3 comments

  1. Sally

    OK I’ll kick off again (assuming no-one else has a comment in the queue for moderator approval ahead of mine). It seems I can’t wait till the rest of you finish work or whatever it is that’s keeping you busier than me and keeping you from posting!!
    I loved this film and I agree with several of Roy’s points from his first and second viewings. The portrayal of the central married couple did seem to be the greatest achievement of the film. However I don’t think the other relationships are drawn especially badly – they are just more complex and ambiguous, and drawn in comparison to what was a fortunate and beautiful marriage that perhaps is treated in the narrative with a tinge of nostalgia.
    While on the subject of relationships, I would like to mention (seeing as it’s a course about women filmmakers) that I thought the sex scenes were brilliantly done with a much greater range than most cinema sex scenes, in that they were capable of showing and differentiating between sex based on intimacy, sex based on lust, sex based on emotional need and compromise etc, and of revealing the unspoken communication between the individuals involved, and while I hesitate to suggest this must forever be a ‘woman’s thing’ I do agree it seems so far more often an achievement in films made by women. If anyone has any stats to prove me wrong though, I’d be happy to hear about it!
    I enjoyed Kal Penn’s performance as the son. I don’t think it was too broadly drawn – as a teenager of his generation, and as someone with a parental background he found alienating, surely he really would be so disaffected, so obnoxious and self-satisfied. And he faced quite a challenge in the remaining hour or so of the film to show us the development of his character: allowing himself to be changed by being in India, maturing while still caught in cultural confusion, trying to balance his father’s aspirations for him with his own, then experiencing an unexpected parental bereavement before he had found his own truth in it all.
    A few other random observations:
    I thought it was a film with potentially universal appeal as it deals with the experience of feeling torn, via both male and female characters, particularly Ashima and Gogol/Nikhail. Torn, obviously, between countries and cultures, but also torn between other identities – for example Gogol’s wife perceived herself as torn between career and freedom, and a life of marriage and domesticity. And it’s not only Bengali women in New York who ponder this question.
    Gogol was also torn in ways that many contemporary teenagers are, whatever their backgrounds, between loyalty to their parents and tradition on the one hand, and more individualistic gratifications on the other.
    I did notice that some of the white American characters were ultimately defined by their cluelessness, examples being the party guest at Max’s family home with her crass comments, and also Max herself who was depicted as ultimately self-interested and incapable of insight into Gogol’s world. But also the library colleague of Ashima’s, who is perhaps drawn the most sympathetically, finally clams up when her amateur counselling of a grieving Ashima is met with a suggestion that the best place for Ashima, the place that can bring her happiness, is not in the library, and not in the US, even with Joseph Campbell on hand to provide wisdom and comfort!
    Well I won’t go on (more than I already have), although there are endless potential comments about this film, except to say that I thought it did love, family, identity and death brilliantly, and what more can you ask for than that?

  2. Rona Murray

    I totally agree, Sally, that it was a brilliant piece of emotional filmmaking. I felt there were so many different kinds of relationships drawn in the film, By Nair, Sooni Taraporevala
    and the actors. I agree that the performances were so finely nuanced – small gestures were used so effectively to communicate things that we can all recognise. Things that are not culturally-bound at all.
    About the sex – this is a real question about male and female filmmakers. Roy raised this question over ‘Sherrybaby’ on this blog a few weeks ago. I find I get less certain with experience and/or age (quoting Oscar Wilde – ‘I’m not young enough to know everything!)- thank goodness! I have seen some great, sensitive portrayals of sexual relationships and sexuality by male filmmakers (say, Roger Michell, recently, in ‘The Mother’ and ‘Venus’). I still give women the edge – I think there is more complexity in their gaze in making films,more resistance of narrative drive for an exploratory, comtemplative style. I think that this contributes to a richer representation of more complex love/sex. It was good the way Nair showed how sexuality is just a facet of our personality, maturity and situation in life.
    I think the question of looking at cultural identity or through it is quite a key one – one which keeps coming up in preparing for later sessions, even though I didn’t initially look for it. There is so much that is universal about relationships in this film, but I like the way that we also engage with those differences as part of becoming involved with the characters. By the end, I could really understand that feeling, for Ashima, of being moulded into that mixed identity and sense of belonging in two places. I agree that some of the portrayal of Western ‘mistakes’ felt quite clunky in such a subtle film. Maxine’s character became disappointingly caricatured, I thought.
    I suppose another question, perhaps, is whether this is a woman’s film at all? I mean, I think a lot of the action (as with some of her other films) revolves around male relationships, and it’s about all emotions. Yet, I don’t imagine lots of men going to see it, although I think it works without being mawkishly sentimental, as a more typical melodrama can be? (Sorry, Roy!)

  3. Roy Stafford

    Interesting points — I’m glad you both enjoyed the film. I’ve been looking at a few blogs from South Asians to explore a bit more the questions about ‘universality’ and whether there are specific cultural dimensions to the film. There are a number of narrative threads that do seem to register with bloggers. One is the importance of names and name-changing and the other is the accuracy of the representation of the Bengali middle classes, both of which Mira Nair herself comments on and which similarly middle class South Asian Americans and Canadians concur with. Interestingly, one blog has a comment from a Calcutta resident who complains about the Bengali accents and bemoans the ‘tourist’s view’ of the city, implying that Nair has it wrong (the commentator walked out of the film).

    On the whole, we seem to be covering more ground than most of the reviews, blogs etc. I’m wondering if we should look at a scene from Monsoon Wedding as a contrast? There are likely to be differences in filming style as well as a more direct focus on contemporary Indian society.

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