Deepa Mehta’s The Namesake: An engaging saga about a family shuffling between two time zones

Anyone who has read my previous post criticizing Lahiri’s protagonist Ashima would know that The Namesake isn’t a novel I am fond of. However, I have wanted to watch the movies based on the book since I first accidentally came across the trailer. It is hard to resist a movie directed by Deepa Mehta starring Tabu and Irrfan Khan after all. To my utter delight, I finally managed to watch the movie recently. One of the reviews gave the verdict that the movie is so much better than the book. Truer words couldn’t have been spoken about the film yet the sensitive portrayal of familial bonds come undone in the last thirty minutes of the movie.

To begin with, the movie has a linear narrative and I really liked it. I failed to understand the purpose of Lahiri’s non-linear narrative in the first few chapters. The fact that Mehta’s Ashima is very different from Lahiri’s Ashima is established in the first few scenes itself. While Lahiri’s Ashima was a woman with no passions of her own who had no qualms in getting into an arranged marriage as against completing her graduation, Mehta’s Ashima is introduced to us as a youngster undergoing training in classical music who enjoys going out with her friends. When Ashima’s mother is praising her culinary skills and other such skills, there is no indication that she is lying. However, I did wonder whether Mehta was trying to convey something through her nervous demeanor, or was it just an example of bad acting especially since Ashoke’s family seemed friendly enough. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Sabyasachi playing the role of Ashima’s father. He praises his daughter’s musical talents and asks her to recite a poem as she is majoring in English. Ashoke’s father chimes in as the poem Ashima chooses to recite is a favorite of Ashoke’s grandfather. He then politely enquires if Ashima has even been on a plane and will she be willing to move abroad. The entire meeting is not only cordial but aesthetic as well. The scene where Ashima’s grandmother gives her blessings during the wedding is adorable. Thankfully, the relatives whose only job in the novel at this juncture was to warn Ashima about influences about the west were done away with.

Once the newlywed couple reaches their matrimonial home in the U.S. we witness them getting to know each other gradually and learning to look out for each other tenderly. The scenes are simple yet so touching adding a certain depth to their need for each other in a distant land. They soon start a family and we get to witness the kids during different stages of childhood. The only people the family interacts with as a unit are either relatives back home during a trip or other Bengalis settled in the U.S. What is heartening is that we see Ashima brighten up around these people. She enjoys the moment and appreciates the presence of those around her. During her interaction with Caucasian people, she does get a cultural shock at times but she is never disrespectful, neither in front of them nor behind their backs as against Lahiri’s openly xenophobic Ashima. Mehta’s Ashima seems to work as a full-time librarian as against Lahiri’s Ashima who would just volunteer for a few hours every week out of sheer loneliness. She is so refreshingly different from Mehta’s depressed depressing Ashima. She is so likable that I actually bad felt for her when she feels nostalgic about the life and people she left behind in Calcutta and when she becomes acutely aware of the generation gap threatening to destroy her relationship with her children. Irfaan Khan has somehow managed to make Lahiri’s ever so soft-spoken Ashoke even more endearing. The ever patient’s Ashoke’s treatment of his family is sure to tug at your heartstrings. Throughout the movie, he never raises his voice; neither when he is exasperated with his wife nor when his children get increasingly impatient with him. His shy deposition has been conveyed gracefully with unspoken gestures. Cinemawali has paid a befitting tribute to Khan’s cinematic prowess on display in this movie through this immensely moving video.[1] I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. The relationship shared by Asoke and Ashima makes such a lasting impression that you feel for Ashima’s loss when Ashoke passes away as against the book where they seemed little more than roommates bereft of any kind of intimacy.

As soon as Gogol makes an appearance in the movie, we get to know that his parents are waiting for Ashima’s grandmother’s letter which would the name she has chosen for the baby. To avoid red tape later to change his name from Baby Boy Ganguly, Ashoke decides to name the baby Gogol due to obvious reasons and Ashima airs no objections. Just how we are left with a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the movie, we don’t get to know why did the expected letter never manage to arrive. It can leave a viewer confused if he hasn’t read the book. There are just about three scenes featuring Gogol during his childhood. We then get to know him as a teenager. While Gogol’s unease with his name was completely internalized in the book, in the movie he is bullied because of his name and a romantic encounter also goes wrong apparently because of his name. Because of these reasons, it is easier to empathize with Gogol’s character. At the Ganguly, household generation gap makes its presence known rather strongly. As if oblivious to the growing distance between them and the children, we see Ashima and Ashoke shower parental love and concern on their children in equal measure. Though one cannot disagree that all the chiding and worrying is done by Ashima alone. Having said that Mehta’s Ashima never turns into a nagging overbearing mother such as Lahiri’s Ashima. Gogol for his part as and when he decides to change his name, he opts for the name Nikhil which had been selected by his parents themselves. Gogol was allowed to be called Gogol as per his own preference on his first day at school.

True to the book, even in the movie at this juncture, he still isn’t told about the real significance behind his name. The reason why he wasn’t told is still a mystery to me. He is told about the significance much later. In the movie, to add to the drama it is during Gogol and Asoke’s last meeting. As an adult, Gogol is reluctant to visit his parents or even take their calls as much as Ashima would like. This kind of behavior is harder to comprehend in the context of the movie as throughout the movie Ashoke and Ashima come across as parents who are not only as attentive to the needs of their children but conscious about not imposing their ideas on their children. Someone might argue that there are no scenes that explicitly support my interpretation but then there are no scenes that prove otherwise either. Therefore, I would like to err in their favor. This is precisely why it is so disconcerting to see Gogol behave so despicably with them. Gogol and Maxine seem to be deeply in love and reside with their parents. Gogol is living a life he chose for himself. At no point in time is he burdened with his parent’s expectations yet strangely enough, he wants to keep his distance from them. It is suggested that he is aware of his parent’s reservations about Maxine’s ethnicity but they are extremely cordial with her when they finally meet her. We don’t witness them complaint about her amongst themselves either. The awkwardness faced by the Ganguly’s as against Maxine’s friendliness is not only a sharp contrast but makes the scene comes across as even more relatable. When Maxine visits Gogol at during Ashoke’s funeral rites. Maxine points out that Gogol cannot stay put with his mother and tells Gogol that they could go for a short vacation. At the first glance, it might seem that she is being a hypocrite as she herself stays with her parents but in hindsight, she could just be referring to her life with Gogol in which they stayed together and worked together. She tells him that she wants to visit India with his family for scattering Ashoke’s ashes only to be told brusquely that she can’t come as she isn’t part of the family. She says that she considers him to be part of her family. She breaks down and says that she doesn’t even get him anymore and she has been trying so hard to be there for him. By the next scene, we are abruptly informed that Gogol has called it off with her. The break-up is harder to comprehend in the movie than in the book despite the fact that even the book handles it rather badly. Ashima at no point is shown to get clingy after losing Ashoke. Not only does she point out that Gogol need not shave his head but urges Gogol to get back with Maxine. But of course, Gogol is going through a serious trip about how horrible he had been with his parents. So he cannot be with Maxine anymore! Ultimately Gogol is not even the one who stays back to give his mother company. It is Sonia who takes up that responsibility. All that Gogol needed to know was to be more responsive to Ashima and act as a bridge between Maxine and his family. So that everyone involved could get used to the relationship gradually. Instea of putting in that effort what he does is abandon her unceremoniously and get involved with Moshumi soon after. Moshumi is introduced to us through Gogol’s male gaze. Unlike the book, we get to know little about her passion for French and the reason why she broke up with the guy she was supposed to marry. We are told that she is incredibly sexy and had many affairs at one point in time. Her terrible dialogue delivery and amateurish body language do little to establish her personality beyond being a woman who is aware of her impact on men. When Gogol points out that he is annoyed with something she told her friends about him, she accuses him of being jealous of the closeness she shares with them. On returning home she informs him that she has turned down an offer to teach at university in order to be an ideal Bengali housewife. By the way all this while we don’t see Gogol indicating in any way that he is envious of any of her friendships or that he wants her to stay at home. I guess Mehta was trying to portray her as an icon of feminism which failed miserably because she just comes across as ridiculously self-absorbed and illogical. At the same an attempt is made to make the viewer empathize with Gogol as it is revealed that he is still in love with her while she has been cheating on him whereas in the book by this time even he had been disenchanted with her. When the affair is discovered by Gogol, she says that she is scared that she was becoming like her mother and it isn’t enough that both are Bengalis. In the movie as against the book, it is never revealed that her fiancee was Caucasian and why they broke up. The only time her mother finds a mention when she had apparently suggested that she cook Indian food for Gogol when he visits her on their second date which didn’t really make any sense since both being second-generation immigrants couldn’t have been expected to have the same kind of fondness their parents shared for Indian cuisine. While Lahiri painted her parents to be caricaturish silly folks for Mehta they are as good as nonexistent because the audience barely gets to know them. As a result of Moshumi’s poor character development and half-baked back story, it is rather hard to understand her let alone empathize with her. We are told that the guy she is having an affair with she has known him for a long time yet we don’t know why did she not get involved with him instead of marrying Gogol in the first place. Neither do I feel the slightest bit of empathy for Gogol. It seems karma served him right for hurting Maxine. In the limited screen space that Maxine gets, she comes across as way nicer than Moshumi. While Maxine with her winning personality is shown to be consistently look out for Gogol, Moshumi does little apart from responding to his sexual advances and belittling him. It makes little sense when Ashima blames herself for the fiasco and offers to stay back as well.

It was extremely disappointing to see a movie with such an engaging plot become such a mess by the end. There is one scene I found to be particularly distasteful. One of the family friends a lady, who is present at all social functions held by the Ganguly family tells Gogol that in college there would be many women vying for his attention. Though he should have a good time with them eventually he must marry a Bengali girl. Firstly, women making the first move in romantic encounters have been portrayed in a poor light and secondly, it has been hinted that any woman of non-Bengali origin, is only worth having a casual relationship with. I couldn’t comprehend the point of Sonali’existence in the family neither in the book nor family. Whatever little we know of her is through Gogol and Ashima’s point of view. The character is so badly sidelined that not even one chapter is dedicated to her in the book and in the movie we never see her in a scene alone without her family. I feel cheated by both Lahiri and Mehta for depriving me of getting to know her better. She not only had the potential to grow into an interesting character in her own right, but she could also have offered a unique insight into the family dynamics which could have aided in understanding all the other characters better. Lastly, I so wish the book had been adapted as a series instead of a movie. Elaborated scenes dedicated to the family’s interaction with the outside world would have added depth and layers to the story as a whole. This particular aspect could have been covered on-screen even better than in the book. It would have been extremely exciting to watch each of the family members undergo personal growth as a result of their interactions with the community outside. It is sadly a missed opportunity. Signing off with the hope that someday the book would be adapted into a series, although it is hard to imagine anyone else performing the respective characters.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY31UE0p8uc

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