About 80%-90% of The Namesake is in English; only 10%-20% is subtitled. The Indian characters switch back and forth between English and (I’m guessing) Bengali when they’re speaking to each other. Other characters, or Indians speaking to other characters, speak English.
The Namesake begins in India. A young man and woman are brought together in an arranged marriage. The man is probably early 20s and the woman a few years younger. (They age something like 30 years in the movie, but don’t look that much older at the end, more like 10-15 years older.)
They settle in America where the man is a graduate student. They raise two children, a boy and a girl. The boy is named “Gogol,” from an important life experience of the father. The portion of the movie where the kids are children is fairly short, then the boy becomes that Kumar guy who died on House and went to work for the Obama administration. The focus of the film shifts from the parents to him, though the parents remain significant characters.
Gogol (and his sister, though she does not play nearly as prominent a role in the film) must deal with common issues of children of immigrants. How does he cope with his funny name? Is he embarrassed about his parents? Does he identify as Indian or American? Does he need to be more American than the Americans in order to be accepted?
The movie covers several decades of this family’s story in two hours. For the first third or so, it feels like it’s maybe trying to do too much, like it’s skimming along the surface. In the early stages, even though there are many scenes, multiple locations, many characters introduced, etc., paradoxically it felt like not much had happened and I didn’t know the main couple all that well and didn’t care about them as much as I would have hoped.
I think the movie hits its stride somewhere around there though, roughly when Gogol is old enough to be played by the Kumar guy. I felt myself gradually drawn in more. There are still some scenes that don’t work as well as others, and some parts that are a bit slow, but The Namesake as a whole won me over, and I became more interested in getting to know this family.
In a way it remains a safe, positive, uplifting story throughout, but it’s not as simplistic as that might imply.
For example, at different times in the movie, Gogol dates a very wealthy, very blonde, very non-Indian girl, and an Indian girl that he is set up with by their parents.
It’s easy to say that with the blonde, that’s him trying to reject his Indianness and show how fully American he is and how he can have the classic American male fantasy of success—a hot blonde on his arm. And then with the Indian girl, that shows he’s decided to no longer be rebellious but to honor his family and his culture by doing the expected thing and picking the first acceptable Indian girl.
But in fact the women are fuller characters with good points and bad points that aren’t limited to whatever would be appropriate for their role as symbols to show where he is in life and how his preferences have developed. And his feelings for them, the way he relates to them, sort of fits their representing these different preferences, but not completely. They’re individuals, not types, and he relates to them as individuals.
So it’s not that it would be a complete misreading to think they represent these different stages of his life when he had different feelings about being American and being Indian, or being independent of his family and being close with his family, but just that it isn’t a straightforward and simplistic fable version of that.
The Gogol character is well played throughout. He ranges from a somewhat difficult teenager who can be disrespectful toward his parents and who picks on his little sister (a bit of a jerk, but never real bad), to a mature young adult coping with issues of career, death, and relationship woes, and he pretty much nails each stage. You may not always think he’s a great guy or agree with his choices, but the performance itself is consistently strong and believable.
It takes a while for the couple to warm to each other, since they were basically strangers to each other, plus they’re dealing with the stress of living in an unfamiliar country. Then later it takes a while for the son to warm to his parents and make his peace with his family and heritage. But they manage it. Love grows, and appreciation grows.
And that’s kind of the way I felt about the movie itself. It was just OK for a while as I hadn’t really adjusted to these characters and to the way the movie tells their story, but over time I gradually cared considerably more, came to appreciate the chance to spend time with this family, and was left with a warm feeling at the end.
The film may get a little sappy here and there for some people, but to me the more emotional moments are solid. They didn’t hit me real deep, but deep enough.
The Namesake is a bit uneven, there are times it’s not as engaging as it could be, not every scene succeeds, and it doesn’t take a lot of risks, but it’s an ambitious, sprawling heartfelt film that does considerably more right than it does wrong. It’s a winner.