"The Namesake" director Mira Nair in a photo
taken in Uganda in July 2004 by Karin Luisa Badt; "The Namesake" movie poster--
the film opens on March 9 in the U.S. and Canada. (Poster: Fox Searchlight)
Filmmaker Mira Nair (her last name is pronounced to rhyme
with the word "fire") had been in San Francisco for just a few hours.
Last week, a day before a roundtable of journalists interviewed her on a sunny
afternoon at the Ritz Carlton hotel, she had barely arrived in town on a flight
from New York City, where she resides. Time and place are important to the
one of the world's top directors. Born near Calcutta, India, Ms. Nair has
chronicled the lives of young poor boys on the streets and marketplaces of India
in "Salaam Bombay"; an interracial romance between Denzel Washington and Sarita
Choudhury in "Mississippi Masala"; a group of Cuban immigrants in a predicament
of sorts in "The Perez Family"; a traditional Indian wedding and culture clashes
in "Monsoon Wedding", and a period drama set in England, "Vanity Fair", adapted
from William Makepeace Thackeray's renowned novel, among other films.
As she approaches the tender years of middle age, Ms. Nair's global perspective
expands even more, and culture enriches that perspective in her films, aspects
of which are present in a very clear fashion in the director's latest film "The
Namesake", which Nair describes as her most personal film. The film, based
on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, stars Kal Penn
("Superman Returns", "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle"), Tabu, Irrfan Khan,
Zuleikha Robinson and Jacinda Barrett. "The Namesake" opens in the United
States and Canada on March 9 and is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
"The Namesake" charts the evolution of Gogol Ganguli (Penn) a young
Indian-American who shuns his given name (named after the famous Russian author
Nikolai Gogol) and his parents' Indian roots. Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan
Khan) have an arranged marriage and jet set from Calcutta to New York City to
explore the bountiful opportunities that America's gateway city has to offer.
Gogol arrives as the first born and his name is tied to a secret past.
Gogol has to bridge the gap between his American roots and his adopted homeland
of India with the Bengali origins of his parents. Gogol's relationship
with Maxine, a white American woman (Barrett) sends subtle shudders down the
spines of his parents, but Maxine's wealthy parents are apparently more
open-minded. Later, Gogol encounters Moushima (Robinson) with whom he is
completely entranced and enraptured by, entering a romance with her that will
lead to several interesting twists and turns.
On this particular afternoon in early March, Mira Nair was describing the visual
look of "The Namesake", and other related inquiries posed to her. Dressed
in a what appeared to be a burgundy gown and golden pants which looked very much
like traditional Indian dress, the charismatic Ms. Nair cast a calm and
disarming presence, patiently listening to her questioners assembled in one of
the rooms at the Ritz Carlton, as they asked about her new film "The Namesake".
"I felt that it need[ed] a different austerity in its photographic style, in its
quietness. I was very clear on that and keen on that." Indeed, Nair
has always made films independent of Hollywood, allowing her full autonomy over
the finished product. The director does not pretend that she is making her
films to please every single taste that exists in an audience. "I made it
for myself. I have no one to answer to in making this film." The
statement is made not in arrogance, but just matter-of-factly, with Ms. Nair's
gentle smile seeming to speak louder than the words that she utters. "For
me ["The Namesake"] was very much a story about parents and children, and I
wanted to make that seesaw," Nair reveals. The "seesaw" effect is
reflected in the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, upon which Sooni Taraporevala's
screenplay is adapted. The book switches back and forth between the story
of Gogol's parents who are transitioning to life in America, and Gogol, who has
to harness his own feelings of American pride and reconcile them with India, the
land of his parents' origin.
A pensive Gogol (played by Kal Penn, crossed hands) joins his
father Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), wife (Zuleikha Robinson) and mother (Tabu) in
India, in Mira Nair's new film "The Namesake", about two generations' struggles
with cross-cultural identity and interracial romance, which opens on North
America on Friday. (Photo: Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight)
"I'm very interested in the idea of strangers who marry
and they fall in love in a distant climate. . . the unfolding of that type of a
drama. I'm very interested in how they have that stillness of an older
generation that I no longer see today, that generation that requires a cup of
tea in a kitchen and how you look at each other, rather than . . . roses and
diamonds and proclamations of love that the young know. I wanted to show
that and I wanted to find it for myself, you know, and to use Gogol's burning to
be American, you know in the counterpoint to this other world. I think
that's what's most interesting, where we come from, what our parents have done
without our vaguely realizing what they might have done for us. It's very
interesting for me."
Along with that theme, the film's visualization becomes significant. Nair
collaborated with cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who worked with David Lynch
on "Blue Velvet" to come up with a photography that created a visual peace and
tranquility. The film was deliberately shot to make the viewer unclear as
to which city -- Calcutta or New York -- that "The Namesake" was in at any given
time. Calcutta's Howrah Bridge and Manhattan's East 59th Street Bridge are
very similar looking-structures in reality and several shots in the film reveal
this. "One of the keys early on was to film these two cities like they
were one city. Because it is to my eyes and my soul, uncannily similar,"
the director said. These visual similarities added an emotional depth and
dimension to the stories and the sense of time and place that could not be
deciphered very easily when watching the film unfold on the big screen.
Transition between time and place during "this thirty-year saga", as the
director termed her film, is also an ever-present theme in "The Namesake".
"This is a film about movement and crossings and traffic and trams in one, and
subways in another, and rivers and airports, and these neutered spaces that
become temples for an immigrant, you know."
In one aspect of the film's casting, the theme of transition became trepidation,
as Mira Nair had a sizable amount of that emotion about casting Kal Penn, an
actor who heretofore had appeared almost exclusively in such comedies as "Van
Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj" and the previously mentioned "Harold and Kumar" film.
She revealed that it was persistence from two sources: Mr. Penn and her own
15-year-old son, who idolizes the actor. "It used to be a mantra.
Mama, tell me in the morning it's Kal Penn, tell me in the morning it's Kal
Penn." Mr. Penn's own repeated conveyance of interest (he had pursued and
entreated Nair and told her that he "became an actor because he had seen my film
"Mississippi Masala" when he was eight, and realized people on screen could look
like him," she said.)
Soon enough, Mr. Penn auditioned and became the real thing.
Initially though, the director was not interested in casting him. "I must say
[that at first] I didn't pay him any attention. I just thought he was a
comic goof, you know, and that was that. And I was looking for a dashing
young man. I don't know, they do make him look sort of absolutely silly in
his movies. It was only actually when Kal showed up at my door and
performed and auditioned that I could understand that he could be someone that I
would consider attractive."
Tabu as Ashima, in Mira Nair's "The Namesake".
Tabu had to age 30 years during the film and the astounding make-up she wears
during parts of the film shows just how seamlessly she ages. (Photo: Abbot
For the role of Ashoke, the director had no such trepidation. Irrfan Khan,
one of India's most noteworthy actors, delivers a performance that is seamless,
a meditation of sorts. For an actor that the director describes as 180
degrees away from his onscreen character's tranquil persona, Ms. Nair revealed
that a lot went into cultivating his character. Mr. Khan (and Tabu, who
plays Ashoke's wife Ashima) spent a day with the parents of "The Namesake"
novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. Mr. Khan plays a "self-effacing, deeply erudite,
but never calling attention to himself, but always there, with a kind of
twinkle." As the director tells it, Mr. Khan's Ashoke character was an
invisible man of sorts. "If you didn't want to pay attention to him, that
was absolutely fine." Nair describes the parents Lahiri as "very amazing,
simple and strong, wonderful human beings." The director added that the
"big key for Irrfan was Mr. Lahiri, who is like this." Of Mr. Khan's
acting in the film, the director agreed that "it was meditation. It was
exactly that. I would insist on it, but I wouldn't have to insist on it
very much, because he understood exactly what I wanted."
Furthermore, there was an undeniable magnetism to Mr. Khan's acting that shook
the director in a profound way. "There's a kind of immediacy when you've
actually got your eye to the eyepiece [of the camera], you're actually shooting
something. And I tell you, I raised my eyes from that camera and I thought
I had been singed. I felt the love [in Mr. Khan's character's eyes] so
powerfully that I thought that . . . it was like being singed by the love
in his eyes. It was unbelievable." (Italics are the
"And he jokes with me, because he's a real bandit, you know -- he's nothing like
this [the character that Mr. Khan plays. In real life he's] Casanova,
white linen suit, 'let's go clubbing', like he's nothing like this -- neither is
Tabu -- Ashima -- for that matter. And he always says, you know, 'you
bloody hell made me a family man, goddamnit!' He's a great guy."
Kal Penn as Gogol, and Zuleikha Robinson as
Moushima, in "The Namesake." (Photo: Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight)
Many films the world over have dealt with the universal themes of immigrants or
political refugees wading through both difficult and exhilarating waters of a
new culture and life in a nation different from their own. Often these
films show moments where a particular person new to a culture unlike their own,
fuses aspects of their own culture's customs with the new culture they have
suddenly had to adapt to. In films like "The Lost Boys of Sudan", a recent
feature-length documentary film about young Sudanese men displaced from their
homeland by that nation's ongoing civil war, which has claimed more than a
million lives and counting. The young men and boys had walked thousands of
miles in the African continent over several months with no food or water, to
escape to a safe place for refuge. Upon being invited to America through a
U.S. government program of sponsorship some of them are seen using shaving cream
for toothpaste, or other similar cultural mismatches. Having no idea of
what it is like to have 24 hour electricity or running water or bathrooms, or
toiletries, these new accoutrements in America seem very alien to them.
Audiences sometimes laugh at this, as they may find it comical.
Sometimes such moments on film are intended as comedic, but sometimes an
audience's laughter and ignorance of different nationalities and their cultures
in such moments reveals something more about those watching the film. Nair
has a cultural mismatching moment in "The Namesake", where early on during her
first days in New York City, Ashima adds spices from her homeland to a bowl of
Rice Krispies. This brings a laugh, and the director is asked about
whether such a moment is intended for audiences to laugh at Ashima.
"But this is not laughing at her, but this is what we actually do -- we eat Rice
Krispies but we screw it up and we put it with nuts and lemons and because it
will at least somewhat come closer to the tang and spice that I need. I
can't tell you, these hotels, I don't know what to eat here. I just don't
know what to do."
The room bursts with laughter.
"I live here, and I just think, 'oh my god!'. San Francisco has such a
great Japanese, great Chinese communities, how come there's not one bloody set
of noodles that I can ask for, that has some spice in them! I can't tell
you! So I just ordered some pasta and I said, 'please bring me some red
chili flakes on the side so I can, like deal with it', you know? But it's
not what I want. It's like something that will approximate something.
Otherwise I will have to have the bloody grilled cheese sandwich with french
fries, and I can't bear it! So it's not to make fun, it's more to
appropriate it to say, 'make this mine -- I have to eat this, so put it in a way
I like to have it, you know. It's not to make [Ashima] a comic thing.
In fact, with the audience's laugh, it is out of recognition."
The director then refers to an old Indian couple at a screening in Pasadena,
California who she says were pointing at the screen saying 'that's like us!'
"It's not because [Ashima] doesn't know [better]. It's because she wants
to have that taste [of her homeland's food] in her mouth."
Mira Nair, who began her film career as an actor, is busy on several forthcoming
films, including "Gangsta, MD", which is an African-American adaptation of "Munnabhai
Mbbs", India's blockbuster comedy, as well as "The Impressionist", an adaptation
of Hari Kunzru's epic novel. Nair is currently involved in production on a
feature-length documentary on The Beatles in India.
For now, however, "The Namesake" is the film Mira Nair brings to the world, and
its globally identifiable themes will likely strike a chord in audiences
particularly in the United States, a nation of immigrants. "The Namesake"
opens this Friday in North America.
Related: The Popcorn Reel Review of