With her latest cross-cultural opus, The Namesake, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has reaffirmed her artful vision of the Indian diaspora that runs throughout her work. However, the film gets stuck in a generation gap it its struggles to depict a new kind of Indian, the so-called “ABCD” (American-Born Confused Desi).
Given the traditional name of Gogol Ganguli by his immigrant parents, the protagonist (Kal Penn) adopts an anglicized name while growing up in New York City. However, his ethnic issues prove to be far less authentic (and coherent) than those of his parents, Ashoke and Ashima, impressively played by Bollywood stars Irfan Khan and Tabu.
Theirs is an old-school Indian romance cleverly juxtaposed against the American setting. After an arranged marriage with clear promises of relocation, Ashoke and Ashima face the difficult task of negotiating their personal differences-they marry as near-strangers-and larger ones between the lingering cultures of the Old World and their strange new Western home. Life doesn’t get any easier when the Ganguli kids grow up distinctly American and make their parents feel like aliens in their own home.
Nair paints a picture of the cultural struggle of first-generation Indians-or any other immigrants for that matter-facing assimilation into their new country. With short playful moments, like when Ashima mixes a bowl of Rice Krispies with curry powder and cashews for breakfast, Nair teases out a bittersweet blend of hope and homesickness.
But when the film settles on the love life of Gogol, Nair seems uncomfortable and unsure of her storytelling. While Gogol struggles to shake off the expectations of his ethnic heritage and prove himself a well-adjusted young American man free of cultural restraints, Nair’s film cannot help but treat his life and surroundings as a one-dimensional stereotype. It’s ironic that a woman whose work strives to expand caricaturish North American perceptions of Indians falls victim a narrow-minded Indian view of America.
Gogol’s relationship with an American girl named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and her rich, white parents, is never portrayed as anything more than a distraction from his own family’s conflicts. While Maxine eventually comes across as empty and shallow as Paris Hilton-it’s funny, the way her family eerily resembles the Tanners of TV’s family vomitorium Full House, one of many “family sitcoms” serving up an interesting “all-American” point of comparison to recent immigrants.
The Namesake is split down the middle by the divergent stories of first- and second-generation immigrants, which is part of Nair’s message about families riven by cultural divides. Unfortunately, the film never manages to fairly tell Gogol’s side of the story. More than anyone else, his conflicted character could have articulated the disjointedness of his family. Instead, while successfully romanticizing Ashoke and Ashima’s immigration and stabs at assimilation, the film’s portrait of its central character ends up as sketchy as Gogol himself.