Namesake
Kumar’s weed-fueled binge had brought him to the Taj Mahal.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/09/2007
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Kal Penn, Irfan Khan, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Sahira Nair, Zuleikha Robinson

“The Namesake” is the latest film by Mira Nair, a pioneer director of sorts, in that she is bringing Indian (dots not feathers) culture to the world.

Her previous films include “Monsoon Wedding” and “Kama Sutra”. Along with Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”), Nair is exposing audiences all over the globe to a culture very foreign to the Western World.

Nair’s latest production is “The Namesake”, a story of a family whose cultural identity is tested as they try to balance traditional Indian customs with America’s great cultural void.

Before anyone attempts to get all bent out of shape, let me explain why I think America doesn’t really stand for much.

It’s not because I would want to live anywhere else or think that we’re Neanderthals (most of the time).

No, what I mean is that because America is the “land of the free”, it’s hard to define what being American means.

As evident in this film, Indians follow strict codes of conduct and participate in centuries old rituals. We celebrate Thanksgiving.

That’s not a bad thing per se, it just means that everyone here has the choice to define their own traditions and customs. I find that to be exciting and egalitarian on one hand but also like choosing your cell phone plan on the other.

There are times when I wish I could identify with a culture so that I had roots to hold onto and an innate sense of identity.

I’m an American. That only really means something when confronted with the Olympics or a foreign country decides we’re some Great Satan.

But if I were Indian, there would be cultural touchstones for me to navigate my way through life. As an American, I’m given the freedom to choose any fork in the road I want. That’s both freeing and damning, especially considering my laziness and overall apathy.

Cultural rant aside, I now almost feel bad saying that whereas “The Namesake” does provoke some interesting discussion, it doesn’t do much for me as a film.

Although it’s a compelling story, it’s all very cliché and if you can’t see the events unfolding, you’re not looking.

The acting is generally excellent, most notably by the parents of the family, played by Irfan Kahn and Tabu. Their performances set the tone for the film and I think a film completely about their experience would have worked better.

By splitting the focus of the film onto their eldest son (Kal Penn), the story becomes a little disjointed. I thought it was important to see the issues their American-born children face over the course of their lives but it makes the film feel too dense.

I also would have liked to have seen more of the kids exploits in India when they return one summer as a family. They’re there for three months and we get maybe ten minutes of screen time, half of it spent at the Taj Mahal.

I’m all for seeing one of the world’s modern wonders but for the film to work, some more juxtaposition of how Americanized Indians feel about their native land would have been appreciated.

Still, I thought the film did a great job of trying to relate a cultural identity to a new audience. The acting ranged from decent to very good and the music choices worked very well to not only convey the mood of the scene but also the reflect the particular time period, as the film moves from the late 70’s to modern day.

I’m giving “The Namesake” a 3 out of 5. As it drew its first breath from a book, the film suffers from not being able to focus on one thing, trying too hard to weave the multiple viewpoints. It’s generally not possible to do something like that in two hours, no matter how talented the director.

It’s still worth a watch though, especially for anyone interested in the dynamics of assimilating cultures and the issues derived in-between.