The Namesake

From where does your name come? Where do you call your home? Does your origin have anything to do with your destiny? These profound questions are addressed in director Mira Nair’s (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala, et al.) latest and to date most profound film, The Namesake (2006). In under two hours The Namesake (based on Jhumpa Lahiritakes’ novel of the same title) ferries the viewer on a journey through the lives of two generations of a Bengali’s family’s discovery of their origin and their future.

In brief, the film opens with the miraculous rescue of the patriarch, Asoka, from a train accident that took place while he was on his way to visit his grandfather in 1970s India. From a chance encounter with both a stranger in the same car and a book of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s work given him by his grandfather, Asoka ends up in New York studying literature. In short order he is matched with a woman more than his equal in her mastery of classical music, Ashima, to whom he ends up happily married. The second miracle of Asoka’s life, the birth of his first-born son, Gogol, unfolds in a second but closely related drama as Gogol searches for his own identity both as an Indian and an American. For those familiar with Bollywood films Nair included a number of episodes that will leave you in stitches, including the portrayal of Gogol’s honeymoon with a sophisticated British-reared Bengali woman with whom his multiple encounters took place due to his mother’s arrangement.

For such a short film, Mira Nair takes the viewer on a surprisingly complex journey in which I certainly empathized with nearly all the characters. All of this was of course helped by the fact that the film score included pieces from the latest album (Music for Crocodiles) by one of my favorite artists—Susheela Raman—including the song over the credits which rather seemed to provide a sort of overture for the whole film. The Same Song is, like the film, the musings of one who feels displaced from a true home and yet unable to make a new home anywhere. And while this is indeed the plight (or fortune, as the case may be) of so many in the contemporary world, it seems to me that it is also the plight of those of us who truly feel the weight of being distanced from our true homeland while at the same time invited to make our home in this world.

In sheer coincidence, I’m pleased we watched The Namesake during the USCCB‘s National Migration Week. The portrayal of the emotional difficulties encountered by all those who leave their homelands for the good of others, usually their children, serves to humanize those whom even the most hard-hearted would likely ignore. And, as ever, the amazing qualities of Mira Nair’s superb direction continues to enchant me as does the music of Susheela Raman. Nair’s eye for visual settings, juxtaposition of worlds, character development, and ability to enrapture an audience is unrivaled. If you have not yet done so, check out The Namesake and spend some time asking yourself where your call your home, towards what horizon you should drift, and wondering what you should call your own. Perhaps your answer, like mine and Gogol’s, is to be found in your namesake!

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