The Namesake (2007)
Screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
Directed by Mira Nair
Produced by Mirabai Films/ Cine Mosaic
Running time: 122 minutes
So, What’s This About?
En route by train from Calcutta to Dungarpur in the year 1974, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) is pried away from Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat by a passenger who implores the bookworm to see the world while he’s young and free. Three years later, Ashoke returns from New York, where he’s earning a PH.d in fiber optics. He participates in a family arranged marriage to a spirited classical singer named Ashima (Tabu), who accepts because she likes Ashoke’s shoes. Uprooted to suburban New York — where gas is available 24 hours a day, but she misses her family — Ashima bares a son, who Ashoke blesses with the “pet name” of his favorite writer: Gogol.
At the age of 4, their son makes the unconventional choice of going by his pet name in America, but years later, on the verge of entering Yale, Gogol (Kal Penn) rejects his “paranoid, suicidal, friendless, depressed” poet namesake and reverts to a variation on his “good name”: Nick. A family vacation to India and a visit to the Taj Mahal convince Gogol to major in architecture. He later introduces his parents to his very loving, very blonde girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett), but a sudden death in the family pulls Gogol closer to his Bengali roots. He marries a Bengali in New York — the heady Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) — but only faces more questions about his cultural identity.
Who Made It?
Born in London, raised in Rhode Island, Jhumpa Lahiri received a B.A. in English literature from Barnard College and three M.A.’s and her PH.d (in Renaissance Studies) from Boston University. Her first book — the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies — was published in 1999. On its way to becoming a bestseller, New York Magazine named it the Book of the Year and Lahiri became the first writer of Asian descent to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her first novel — The Namesake — arrived in 2003. After reading it by chance on a flight from New York to India, filmmaker Mira Nair optioned the novel, putting two other projects aside to direct a film adaptation.
Mira Nair attended Delhi University to study sociology, but soon became active in political theater. Attending Harvard, her focus shifted to photography and finally, filmmaking. Her 1979 Harvard thesis — Jama Masjid Street Journal — documented Muslim family life in Delhi. A critically acclaimed feature film debut — Salaam Bombay! (1988) — earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Moving between features and documentaries, Nair scored a critical and commercial success with the low budget Monsoon Wedding in 2001. The Namesake reunited her with producer Lydia Dean Pilcher — founder of Cine Mosaic — and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, author of three of Nair’s previous films.
How’d They Do It?
A note Jhumpa Lahiri wrote to herself in 1997 during one of her visits to extended family in Calcutta would form the basis for her debut novel, The Namesake. Lahiri recalled, “The names we have — we think they’re so much about who we are and that they are the one word that exists that represents us, and yet, we don’t choose them. They’re from our parents. And I knew that Bengalis loved to name children after artists and writers. I literally wrote down on a piece of paper: a boy named Gogol.” Working on the novel for the next six years, Lahiri researched Russian author Nikolai Gogol and train wrecks, but relied mostly on experiences she’d made during her stays in India.
Published to great acclaim in 2003, Mira Nair read The Namesake on a flight from New York to India six months after purchasing the novel. “I was committed making two other films — they were already financed and everything — when I read The Namesake by chance on a plane. At first it was really being inspired by grief: I was in mourning for a parent I had lost — my mother-in-law, who was like a mother to me — and burying her in the snow of New York when she was an African woman was so shocking and so devastating, and also the first time in my life to be confronted with the finality of loss. I felt Jhumpa really distilled this and like I had found a sister or someone who understood exactly what I was going through.”
Nair continued, “But then as I got more involved with it, it was obviously not your classic reductive immigrant story of the mail-order bride who comes from the dirt poor to the shiny sparkling new world. None of those stories do justice to the complexities of our lives, of our parents and us and so on. And I have to get visually engaged or inspired and both these cities, New York and Calcutta, I know so well, and I have lived in that state between them for so long. What I love in filmmaking in general is the circus of life and that subject matter just gave me so much, so many places to go.” Arriving in Jodhpur to shoot the finale of Vanity Fair, Nair phoned her agent and was told that the film rights to The Namesake were available.
A week later, Nair was back in New York to sit with Jhumpa Lahiri and discuss her vision for The Namesake. Adapting a screenplay, Nair turned to Sooni Taraporevala, who’d written Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala with the director. The screenwriter recalled, “The vital thing, I think, is that Mira and I connected with the emotional landscape. On both levels. I connected with Gogol because I too studied in America, and, when I came back after six years, my parents didn’t really recognize me. And I connected with the parents, because, well, I’m one myself now. It’s a story that reaches out to all the generations, and I think this adaptation came at a time I was ready for it, when I could completely relate to all of the characters.”
With Mira Nair in New York corresponding with the Mumbai-based Sooni Taraporevala via email in March 2004, a first draft was knocked out in “an insane 11 days” according to the screenwriter. Though Nair’s agent at Creative Artists Agency — Bart Walker — initially pushed for a script they could present to buyers at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Nair opted to work with Taraporevala through six drafts and take the necessary time to discover the world of The Namesake. The director revealed, “One of the first things I asked Jhumpa to do was to invite me home to her family. And I photographed their house and also photographed their photograph album. A lot of the fashion, a lot of the kind of ideas of what the parents will wear and so on would emerge from these pictures.”
Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher arrived on a budget of $9.6 million and split financing three ways: Ronnie Screwvala of Bombay-based UTV Motion Pictures, Taka Ichise of Tokyo-based Entertainment Farm and Fox Searchlight Pictures each invested $3.2 million in financing. Fox Searchlight was interested in distributing the picture worldwide, but Nair added, “I felt with The Namesake that I needed an Indian investor who was invested in it in the beginning so that I would have somebody homegrown who would then exploit this film — even though it’s not going to be made like a Bollywood film, or like a commercial Indian film in any way — but I want somebody on the turf there who knows the systems and who can be invested enough in it to give me a really substantial distribution.”
Konkona Sen Sharma was initially cast in the role of Ashima, but when filming was pushed back, the actress had to drop out. Two weeks before cameras rolled, the National Film Award winning Tabu was cast instead, making her Hollywood debut. Nair added, “Irrfan Khan who plays Ashoke was someone I discovered when he was 18 years old and I was what, 29, in a basement in the National School of Drama, where he was a student. And he came out and worked with me in my first film Salaam Bombay! and since then, I’ve longed to give him a part that deserves his extraordinary, extraordinary talent.” Interested in casting an Indian actor in the role of Gogol, Nair settled on Abhishek Bachchan.
Kal Penn had been given a copy of The Namesake by his Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle co-star John Cho. Penn recalled, “As soon as I read it we talked about trying to get the rights. We placed calls to our respective lawyers and in the interim said we don’t know anybody other than Mira Nair who could do justice to the intimacy of the novel. And then we got the phone call back saying, ‘You can’t have the rights. Mira Nair beat you to it.’” Undeterred, Penn wrote Nair a letter, crediting Mississippi Masala for his pursuit of acting. He received an invitation to fly to Calcutta to audition. With the lobbying efforts of Nair’s 13-year-old son as a bonus, Penn won the part. A 28-day shooting schedule would commence March 2005 in New York, followed by 11 days in Kolkata, India.
The Namesake screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in September 2006 before opening in the United States, India, France and the U.K. in March 2007. Critics were effusive with praise. Toddy Burton, The Austin Chronicle: “Reminiscent of Jim Sheridan’s masterly In America, The Namesake delivers such a tactile presence that it’s difficult not to leave feeling as if you’ve just struggled through a New York winter, attended an Indian wedding, and returned from a Calcutta holiday.” Dennis Lim, The Los Angeles Times: “Despite being rooted in knotty issues of identity, Lahiri’s novel forgoes didacticism in favor of vivid portraiture. Nair and her uniformly superb cast take the same tack: The characters are individuals before they are emblems.”
Earning $13.5 million at the U.S. box office and adding $6.5 million overseas, The Namesake became another gem in Mira Nair’s growing filmography. The director stated, “I made this film to take families to because as a mother of a 15-year-old, it is an insult to my intelligence those family films. There’s no film I can take my whole family to and enjoy — it’s very rare. So I wanted to make a film where I could take my grandparents and my teenager, and we could all get something from it that wouldn’t insult us, that would actually jam us and take us somewhere. So it would be seen like that as a film for the family.”
Should I Care?
I’ve never read Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller, but if The Namesake isn’t one of the richest, most deeply affecting adaptations of print to film in recent memory, I can’t imagine what is. Powered by the same currents that make a good novel so rewarding, Mira Nair’s jewel of a film offers no instant gratification — no plot twists, no special effects, no jokes — but through the narrative skills and confidence of a filmmaker firing on all cylinders, is crafted into a great story of both intimacy and scope. Spanning 25 years and two cities on opposite ends of the globe, The Namesake is one of the best ‘70s films of the 21st century, touching The Godfather Part II and Five Easy Pieces with varying degrees of subtle brilliance.
An embarrassment of technical riches — cinematographer Frederick Elmes, editor Allyson Johnson and composer Nitin Sawhney deserved Oscar nominations for their textured work — what’s magnificent about The Namesake is the atmosphere, sensuality and mystique that drip from the film. Watching this, it’s clear Warner Bros. knew what they were doing offering Mira Nair the fourth Harry Potter installment: in addition to drawing excellent performances from actors both young and old, she understands the magic of film. Growing up outside the U.S., it’s Nair — along with Peter Weir, Alfonso Cuarón and Hayao Miyazaki, among a growing list — who seem to be making the most original, thought provoking and grown up films today.
Where’d You Get All of This?
“Catching Up With Pulitzer Prize Winner Jhumpa Lahiri” By Matthew Sloan. Poets & Writers, October 2003
“Nair’s The Namesake: A Life Between Two Worlds” NPR, 9 March 2007
“Mira Nair: Q&A” By Ben Walters. Time Out London, 27 March 2007
“Godmothers of The Namesake” By Craig Lambert. Harvard Magazine, March 2007
“From Salaam Bombay to Little Zizou” Rediff News, April 2007
“The Anatomy of The Namesake with Mira Nair” The Namesake. 20th Century Fox (2007)
“Mira Nair Interview, The Namesake” By Sheila Roberts. Movies Online