Director Mira Nair's films are intoxicating, transporting, virtually fragrant journeys of cultural infatuation and collision. Films such as Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding often have paid homage to Nair's Indian heritage and the blending of East and West in both her own and her characters' lives.
The Namesake continues Nair's fascination with reconciling an Indian heritage in an America that often asks for assimilation and cultural amnesia from its immigrants. Like all of her films, The Namesake is imbued with a profound, sensory depth of feeling. That finesse with tactile, lived experience is expressed nowhere so powerfully as in the difficult journey that new bride Ashima (Tabu) makes with her husband, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), from the warmth and community, bright colors and open windows of Calcutta to the bleak, frigid closed doors and isolation of Queens in the 1970s.
There are many lovely and affecting moments in The Namesake, especially in actress Tabu's wrenching portrait of Ashima's loneliness, as she and Ashoke drift from the city to the suburbs where she spends countless hours killing time before her husband and children return home.
The Namesake follows the journey of Ashima and Ashoke to America, but finds its message in the life of their college-bound son, Gogol (Kal Penn), as he tries to live the life of an American but is increasingly drawn back to his Indian heritage. It is unfortunate that in her mission to enfold us in the Ganguli family experience of being both Indian and American, Nair's primary agent of this poignant, potent culture clash is Penn, an actor whose mostly puerile work in films such as the Van Wilder franchise carries over into even this dramatic role. He just seems ill-equipped. It is to the film's detriment that every time the listless Gogol is on-screen, you long for Nair to return to his soulful, melancholy parents.
Any time the film's attention is on Indian film stars Tabu and Irfan Khan, The Namesake shines. But too often, The Namesake gives the impression that, in adapting Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's book for the screen, Nair has overburdened herself; taking on too much scope and too many stories. Her film covers so much ground that it's hard to sustain emotional investment in its characters.