The Namesake

The Namesakei just finished watching the indian movie The Namesake (imdb) in the local multiplex here in Kolkata. The movie was directed by indian-born Mira Nair (imdb), based on the like-named novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is about a bengali-indian family living in the US; and specifically about a bengali woman adjusting to life in America and her american-born son adjusting to his indian heritage.

The movie is well directed and acted and flows well except for a few timing problems that temporarily throw you out of the action. It remains however the story and not the movie itself that is actually interesting. The actors do their jobs but somehow, the whole fails to point us to the depths of what is going on inside the people. Nevertheless, it’s a good movie that is thought-provoking if not thoughtful.

The moral of the story was standard: the usual “find yourself and be happy”. The boy, Gogol, goes through the normal second-generation immigrant’s rejection then search then moderate indifference towards his ‘roots’; his mother adapts to her new culture but in the end goes back to where she belongs. This is to be expected. The family we see is a generic immigrant family.

The movie offers no solutions to the problems it portrays. It actually does not even deem the situations to be problematic. This might be a healthy stance. It says: knowing multiple cultures is complicated but there is no reason to make such a fuss about it: just get over it and move on.

Yet i cannot help but feel that such a view is too simple, that it’s avoiding something.

After the movie,  i discussed the matter with one of my good friends over dinner. He and his wife are moving to the US and will have children there but want to come back to india after a few years to raise their children à l’indienne. He does not think that american culture is per se worse than its indian equivalent (though his wife does seem to think so), but he wants to avoid his children having a different culture than their parents and all the attendant difficulties. This worry is, of course, itself an indian feature as western parents rarely worry about their children becoming un-western since it almost never happens. My friend is worried about loosing his children, or about having to change his own cultural habits in order to keep them.

To get back to the movie, i think that the weakness of the film is that it does not get at the fundamental difference between cultures. The US-Bengali rift is not simply the difference between two cultures. The problem is rather that the two cultures have very different areas of application. Indian culture regulates family and social life; american (and western) culture regulates one’s personal life. In indian-english ‘culture’ means “what you can and cannot do”, it structures interpersonal behavior; in american-english it means “art, food and books”, it’s an optional pass-time for the upper classes.

Western culture appears to be a meta-culture that allows you to pick and choose among all cultures, ordering a personal culture à la carte. Indian culture clearly has some preestablished patterns that you should follow, more or less. This explains why an indian can westernize (as Gogol’s father did) but a westerner cannot become an indian (as Gogol cannot): Gogol tries to become indian, but he picks and chooses the bits he likes and thus never becomes deeply indian.

At the end of the movie, the boy Gogol claims to be finally free. This does not mean that he has accepted having a foot in two different cultures, it means that he has subsumed indian culture under his american culture: he is free because his indianness has become just one among many other aspects of his life. I am not saying that this is bad – it describes me too; but i remain aware that there are people for whom this is an undesirable end to the story.

i don’t like anything i just said and it all sounds horribly wrong. i neither know what i’m trying to say nor how to say it. i’ll try again later…

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2 Comments to “The Namesake”

  1. thanks, Michael, for your review of the film. If it comes to Tucson I’ll try to watch it and comment further.

  2. Have a look at Pankaj Mishra’s review of the book in ‘The New York Review of Books”, December 2003.

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