By Dan Persons
[Photo: Irfan Khan and Tabu in “The Namesake,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Taking several steps back from the lush canvas that was her adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” director Mira Nair turns her glance inward, bringing personal insight and a more straightforward style to “The Namesake.” Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, the film attempts to portray the universality of the modern immigrant experience by tracing the lives of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) as they face the transition from their life in Calcutta to their new home in New York, and eventually that of their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who struggles to reconcile his identity as a first-generation American with a growing realization of how strongly his roots still reach back to the culture of India. I spoke with Nair in New York:
This film seems to address two divides: the divide of country in Ashoke’s and Ashima’s story, and the generational divide in the story of Gogol’s relationship with his parents. Does one theme inform the other?
Good question I don’t know if they inform each other. I think the story of parents and children, and therefore the generational divide, is a story that’s not unique to any one culture, it’s the same in many places. Of course, in the case of “The Namesake,” it’s deeply affected by the fact that the parents are born and raised in Calcutta, in a deeply Indian context, and that their children are born and raised entirely in an American context.
The fact is that the parents realize they can’t spoon-feed what they have known. There’s no stasis, things move. And they’re also wiser than most, in that they’re not going to sledgehammer down Gogol’s throat everything that is Indian and everything that they know.
So there’s a certain amount of fluidity, but the story is the ancient story: How do you grow up? How do you come of age? How do you realize who you are? Sometimes, many times, you realize a little too late. You have regrets; you have things that you wished you had done. I know when I became a parent it was the only time I really realized what I had put my parents through. It’s about that continuum, but greatly affected by the fact that there are two cultures here.
You’ve said this film expresses your love for two cities: New York and Calcutta. The things there are to love about New York will be more obvious to American audiences, but what about Calcutta?
Calcutta is incredibly layered; layers of history in that city. And it’s a city that’s devoted to politics and art, the mix of it. It’s a city that is full of erudition in the least expected places. Look at the house Ashima comes from: It has stenciled wallpaper next to a patch of cement next to a family portrait. That was not an art-designed home that is how it came. I love the need of people to express themselves. It’s classic Bengali living an oil painter, singing, protests… that’s life in Calcutta. It’s always bristling with some kind of life. I love that city. I discovered musical theater in that city; I grew up in that city. It was a wonderful banquet for me to try to capture that.
You’ve talked about bringing your Punjabi background to this story about Bengals. Jhumpa Lahiri had mentioned bringing you to her parents’ home for dinner to get you better acclimated. What did you see in the Bengali personality that you had to revise in your own approach to telling this story?
Well, I’m Punjabi, but I grew up in Bengal, so I know very well how different it is. The oxygen of culture in Bengal is very inspiring to me. It’s not like I had to temper my Punjabiness, because I wasn’t making a Punjabi film. But going to [Lahiri’s] family and meeting her parents, who were, in her own admission, the way she channeled [her characters] her mother especially, for Ashima these were the flesh-and-blood people of the characters that she had written; that was a big key to how to play Ashoke and how to play Ashima. I even took Tabu and Irrfan, the actors, to Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri for the same reasons: They spent the day together, and it was a big, big key in how to get their characters right.
The press notes mentioned your reliance on paintings and still photos when you were developing the look of this film. What inspired you?
I love contemporary photography. Raghu Rai, a great Indian photographer, made this image of a man and a rickshaw pulling the Goddess Saraswati down a boulevard in Calcutta. That image gave me an idea: Durga and Saraswati are like the key gods of the city of Calcutta; you can’t go a block without seeing a goddess of some kind, really. I thought it would be very important to have the blessing of the goddess in our film, because it is a Bengali film, in actual sense. So that image gave me the idea to have the goddess floating above us and being lowered down to the street. It’s like that: Image will give me the idea to make a scene.
You’ve got a gallery show opening at the Sepia Gallery on March 8th. Did all this come to you upon…
I created it. I made it happen, because of the photography that I love, and we created a really photographic film. So I talked to a publisher in the summer I designed [a companion book for the film], a mix of text from Lahiri’s novel and images from the movie as well as the images of these classic photographers. That book was the foundation of taking it to the Sepia Gallery, and I said, “Do you want to do this?” And they loved the idea.
Did your personal investment in this story inspire you to carry this project beyond just the film?
Of course. It was like total possession, I can’t tell you. And because I know how precious it is to be inspired, I really follow that inspiration. It doesn’t happen often that you have this wave of, “I have to make this. I was born to do this.”
“The Namesake” opens in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and San Francisco on March 9, rolling-out to other cities in subsequent weeks (official site).