Not only is Mira Nair one of the world’s pre-eminent women directors, she has also taken over Spike Lee’s mantle as the most intuitive director making movies about ethnic minorities in America. Having started off making documentaries (search out So Far From India if you can) her best fiction films until now have been Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding. Now, with her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s award-winning novel The Namesake, she manages to build on ideas she developed in 1991’s Mississippi Masala (a film also about the many conundrums faced by second generation children living in America).
Ashoke (Irfan Khan from The Warrior) survives a massive train crash in Calcutta and is convinced that the short story he is reading - The Overcoat by Russian writer Maxim Gogol - had a pivotal role in saving his life. Hot on the heels of his arranged marriage to Ashima (Tabu) he moves to New York City in pursuit of the limitless opportunities apparently on offer. Life is tough and they name their first born son Gogol after the Russian writer. As Gogol (Kal Penn) grows up, he struggles with the demands of his parents.
Gogol’s The Overcoat is a tale of duty, bad fortune, hierarchy and the minute wrongs that keep the dead walking among us. Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala use many of these ideas as a bridge into this adaptation of Lahiri’s novel while cleverly juxtaposed sequences show the similarities between Calcutta and the Big Apple. What sets Nair apart from her British equivalent Gurindha Chadha is that she sides with the first generation immigrant experience rather than the second. East is East, Ae Fond Kiss and all Chadha’s films (Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) mistakenly believe they are striking a blow for multicultural harmony by making pictures in which second generation youth abandon their parents’ culture in order to feel at home. This gives a false picture of what is a far more grey and unpredictable choice being made by second generation youths and looks even more outmoded in the wake of the bomb attacks in London, which highlighted a sense of alienation that is oft-ignored in films of this ilk.
Like Edgar Reitz’ Heimat epics, The Namesake is an unhurried, insightful and deeply moving generational drama that cannot be recommended highly enough.
General release from Fri 30 Mar.