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Why Mira Nair’s The Namesake is still significant

Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s landmark novel, the film played an important role in the careers of the major players involved with it. Ten years since its release in India (23 March 2007), we look at how The Namesake came at a pivotal time for those who made the film.

Sonal Pandya

It all began with a novel. Jhumpa Lahiri’s first published work, a short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies, was brought to the global stage with a Pulitzer prize for Fiction in 2000. All eyes were on her next project, her first full-length novel, The Namesake, which was published in September 2003.

Focusing on the Ganguli family, the novel follows Ashoke and Ashima, who emigrate to the United States after their marriage. As they settle into their new relationship and surroundings, the Gangulis have to wrestle with their Indianness in a land that knows nothing of their former lives. Even their two children, Gogol and Sonia, aren’t entirely aware of the struggle their parents have faced. They are more American than Indian.

To say the novel struck a chord amongst readers is an understatement. While Lahiri was writing about the Indian-American experience, all over the world Indians who had left home to make their homes elsewhere felt they saw a bit of themselves in the story. One of those readers was filmmaker Mira Nair who read the book on a plane after the funeral of someone she considered a second mother.

Irrfan Khan and Tabu in The Namesake (2007)

In 2006, she told the audience before a screening of the film in Rome, “I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s book in a very unique moment. I was anguished at having to bury someone in a land that was not hers.” She bought the rights to the film and began work on the script with friend and long-time collaborator Sooni Taraporevala.

There was someone else also interested in purchasing the rights of the book but by the time he put out his query, the rights had been bought by Nair. Actor John Cho recommended Lahiri’s book to his Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) co-star Kal Penn. Both actors gained fame after the cult classic, but Penn found he was typecast more often than not in films like Van Wilder (2002) and Dude, Where’s The Party? (2003).

The role of Gogol Ganguli in The Namesake would be an opportunity for Penn to showcase his talent. The film spans several years and the sullen teenager Gogol becomes the more mature Nikhil who learns about the ups and downs of life and belatedly discovers a connection with his father Ashoke.

For Penn, I imagine the character might have struck a chord as well. The actor was born Kalpen Modi and changed his name in a bid to escape stereotyping while auditioning. He told Nirali magazine, “Almost as a joke to prove friends wrong, and half as an attempt to see if what I was told would work [that anglicized names appeal more to a white-dominated industry], I put ‘Kal Penn’ on my resume and photos. Auditions did increase, and I was amazed. It showed me that there really is such an amount of racism [not just overt, but subconscious as well]. I kept the anglicized version of my name on pictures so that I had a better chance of auditions, but I never intended to be known as ‘Kal Penn’. Ironically, once you start working under any name, you can’t easily be known by another — even if it is your real name. I still prefer Kalpen Modi.”

He is credited twice in the film, once as Kal Penn for Gogol, and as Kalpen Modi for Nikhil. Recently, Penn shared his old scripts from his early career on Twitter when some of his characters didn’t even have names and most of them expected him to use an Indian accent. His current role is as press secretary Seth Wright on ABC’s Designated Survivor where he holds a key position in president Tom Kirkman’s administration.

The Ganguli family in a still from The Namesake (2007)

The Namesake’s Gogol also wrestles with his name. His pet name is Gogol, after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, while his birth name is Nikhil. In Bengali culture, most people have a pet name which is usually used to address people while their real name is used legally. As Gogol grows up, he begins to resent his pet name and adopts his birth name which gets anglicized into Nick. He does not realize the emotional significance of the name bestowed upon him.

The Namesake was shot in New York (the novel was based in Massachusetts) and Kolkata. Nair cast Indian actors Irrfan Khan and Tabu in the roles of Ashoke and Ashima. The two had already worked together in the critically acclaimed Vishal Bhardwaj film Maqbool (2004) and would later reunite in Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi (2012), Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014), and Meghana Gulzar’s Talvar (2015).

Khan had worked on the international film, The Warrior (2001), directed by Asif Kapadia, but The Namesake put him in the international spotlight. Later that year, he was seen in smaller roles in A Mighty Heart (2007) starring Angelina Jolie and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007) with Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody. Since then, he has accumulated a filmography boasting of a variety of films in world cinema and in India — from the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to Paan Singh Tomar (2012) to The Lunchbox (2013). He hasn’t looked back since.

For Tabu, it was her first international film. The National award-winning actress often took on roles in regional and Hindi cinema, picking good roles over fame in commercial cinema. Her silent-but-strong portrayal of Ashima as the lonely Indian wife probably influenced the makers of Life Of Pi (2012) to cast her as Pi’s mother. Even now, Tabu is selective about the films she chooses, often taking on a film or two in a year.

Though a portion of Vanity Fair (2004) was filmed in India, Nair returned to her filmmaking roots here with The Namesake, close to where she herself grew up in Rourkela, Orissa. With this film, she explored her reality living in different cities and continents while remaining true to her background. The Namesake is dedicated “to our parents who gave us everything”. Nair also added a note for Indian filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, stating ‘for [the] gurus of cinema with love and salaams’.

A cursory glance through the credits list also reveals that the late director Rituparna Ghosh helped with the Bengali translations, while now Academy award-winner Lupita Nyong’o (for 2013’s 12 Years A Slave) was the post-production intern.

Lahiri based the story on the experiences of her parents and said in a rediff.com interview that “as the film ended, I was overwhelmed. I hugged Mira. I felt this is the greatest gift Mira has given me. I cried then.”