Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Namesake

Once in a rare while, I see a movie that simply takes my breath away; something achingly beautiful, so familiar it seems I know these people, or come to know them in the brief time in the theater. They keep on living after the credits roll, not in a tidy happily ever after way, but in a true, messy, lovely and painful way. Mira Nair has directed two films that fall into this category for me, Monsoon Wedding and now The Namesake.

The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a story about a family. Like every story about a family, it is actually many stories, the stories of each member of that family, together and apart. The beginning for one is the next chapter for another and sometimes, agonizingly, the last for yet another. It is the story of Ashok Ganguli, a man inspired by a grandfather’s gift and a horrible tragedy to move far from home. It is the story of Ashima, the lovely bride he takes with him, who struggles with desperate homesickness, but comes to love her new country. It is the story of Gogol, their son, raised with all the advantages of a life in American suburbia, who must come to terms with who he wants to be; an American boy with Indian parents or an Indian American? A dutiful son or his own man?

I’ve recently become enthralled with Showtime’s new series This American Life. The day after I saw The Namesake, I watched an episode of This American Life which included a story about a woman who was struggling to leave the Mormon faith without turning her back on her family. There was the most exceptional quote which seemed strangely relevant to the movie I’d seen the day before:

Choosing not to become the person your family expected is painful. You have to leave their world completely so you can make sense of your own life. But fate lures you back in whenever it can, to give you the chance to measure the distance between their world and yours, and see if its just as far as you remembered.

Gogol spends much of the film fighting that lure of fate, trying to broaden the distance between his world and his parents. Like many a young person, he discovers the hard way that a determination to be “not like” his parents is not sufficient to count as an identity.

Mira Nair is an amazing director. She find beauty everywhere; in the mad, vibrant, filthy streets of India or a non-descript cul de sac somewhere in American suburbia. Through the eyes of a newlywed wife, the landscape of a New York winter appears black and white compared to the world from which she has come. As she waves to her husband through a window as he trudges off to work in the snow, you feel the oppressiveness of that white open space upon her. It is as if he has left her to fend for herself on the moon. Fans of Mira Nair's work will recognize her touches, including an impromtu song and dance number which seems both out of place and perfect.

There is something so incredibly American about this story. Frightened young wives from every corner of the globe have stood in dingy American tenements, overwhelmed by mysterious questions like how to do laundry in this strange land. Unless you are full blooded Native American, somewhere in your history, you have an ancestor who did the same thing. Somewhere in your history, you have an ancestor who despaired of the Old World ways of their parents, struggling to understand why they would come all this way just to insist on eating their cereal with curry powder and peanuts. The further away we get from our original ancestors' trek to this country, the more we’re inclined to believe that we are somehow separate from the immigrant experience, when in fact America is a tapestry created by the immigrant experience.

This movie got me thinking about my own scrap of the tapestry, so I thought I'd end this review with my own immigrant roots, and a nod to everyone along the way who had dreams bigger than their original country could contain. My granny on my mom’s side was born in England. She came here with her family to Illinois, by way of Canada. She was an illegal immigrant until she reached adulthood and, though her parents were successful business owners, they lived in constant fear of being found out and deported. My granddad’s mother was from Holland, and I’ve still got a handful of distant cousins who live there. On my Dad’s side, I know less, except that we’re Heinz 57: Scotch, Irish, German… whatever they could pick up along the way. My grandma was born in Oklahoma, but headed West with her family during the Dust Bowl, just like the Joads.

What does your scrap of tapestry look like?


Anonymous said...

My Dad's mom came over from England during WWII because she had married (in England) a hillbilly from Virginia. He was still at war. His family rejected her as a "foreigner" and after the war they moved out here. The Virginia branch has lived here since the 1600s, but originally hails from France.

My Mom's family is murkier -- Polish & English mostly, far removed.

The line you quoted from the ex-Mormon sums up my own experience quite well. A few years ago I saw the Rene Zellweger movie "A Price Above Rubies" about a Jewish woman who leaves her Orthodox faith and it spoke to me in the same way. It doesn't matter the flavor of faith or belief; breaking away from something that strong, that entrenched, is the same for all who do it.

Holly G.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Lovely. You've made me want to watch the movie!