By Sara Schieron
While Mira Nair was dubbing for Vanity Fair, star Gabriel Byrne came to her raving about Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel, The Namesake.
The novel, which follows the Ganguli family from their arranged marriage in Calcutta through their immigration to New York and the growth of their son, is ideal material for Nair, whose films are often about people creating paths between old ways and new surroundings. Perhaps it wasn't such a coincidence that Byrne caught Nair mid-read.
As she began work on the adaptation, Nair immediately understood the script had to "rest on two pillars." The first is the story of parents Ashoke and Ashima; the second, their son, Gogol's coming of age. Interested in "strangers who marry and fall in love," Nair says she was eager to capture "the stillness of an older generation that I no longer see today. That generation that requires a cup of tea in a kitchen and [a certain way of looking] at each other rather than all the roses and diamonds and proclamations of love that the young want. I wanted to show that, and find it for myself, and to use Gogol's burning to be American as a counterpoint to this other world."
When Gogol is born, Ashima (played by singer and actress Tabu) tells the doctor that one of her family members wasn't named until he was six and that there is "no rush" to name their son. After all, it's the "pet" name, informally given to him by his parents, that he'll be called for his first few years anyway. The grandmother gives the baby its "good" name; the formal name that the child will write on documents and take into society and adulthood. As hospitals in the US are not allowed to dispatch babies without social security cards, the Gangulis put the child's pet name, Gogol, on the birth certificate. An apt metaphor for the friction between the domestic protection of culture and public obligations to assimilate, Gogol's coming of age is not just reliant on separating himself from his parents, but also reconciling his Indian heritage with what Nair refers to as "his American birthright."
Every moment of Nair's film pulsates with the tension between the good name and the pet name; the "coming of age" of the characters as they each break free of their homes and try to make a world "outside." Capturing the character of Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), "a Bengali beauty in front of a Rothko," or "Asima schlepping her laundry in her Sari in the cold," are all ways of capturing the contrasts of these two worlds. Great attention was also paid to the bridges (both literal and figurative) that unite these clashing cultures.
Nair and cinematographer Frederick Elmes sought to visualize these collisions, but also to identify the ways in which these worlds blend into each other. "One of the keys which came to me early on, because I have grown up in my youth in Calcutta and in my later life in New York, was to film these two cities as if they were one city, because for my eyes and my soul, these cities are uncannily similar. Frederick thought that was a radical idea. This is a film about crossings - about trams and subways and busses and trains and rivers and airports and these neutered spaces that become temples for an immigrant. So once I figured out that was how I wanted to shoot the two cities, it was a major key to me in terms of how I approached transitions in a 30-year saga. So often I have members of the audience tell me, 'I didn't know where I was. I didn't know if I was in Calcutta or New York.' And that's what I wanted, because that's what Ashima feels like - that's what anyone who lives between worlds feels like."
Ashima meets suitor Ashoke (Irfan Khan) after he's recovered from a severe train crash. Upon arrangement, the two marry and leave their respective families to live in wintry New York. A singer before her marriage, Ashima stops singing after she leaves her family in Calcutta. Though the Ashima of Lahiri's novel was not a singer, Nair felt it was important to involve an aspect of feminine adaptation. "Ashima's singing becomes a lullaby when she becomes a mother and consolation when she's with her husband. That's what happens to women... we adapt. That's what happens to art and our expression. We sublimate - we serve it for others. We only come into our own when we are allowed to."
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