In this film essay, Yayaati Joshi looks at The Namesake and considers it to be a mixed bag of emotions-cultural shocks, an unusual name, and a very hard attempt to replicate the book.
The Film Corner is a series on InPEC by Yayaati Joshi. Yayaati is a blogger and a short story writer whose work can be found here and in his book, ‘The Recluse and the Rag Picker’. He specialises in cinema of all kinds including commercial, arthouse and foreign films. This collection of film essays looks at the nature of film in society and the purposes that it serves. The first article in the series, a review of Mere Apne, is here.
By Yayaati Joshi, 6th July, 2012.
The Namesake starts in a train, where Irrfan Khan (Ashoke) is busy reading Nikolai Gogol’s collection of short stories. From there on, so many incidents happen that it becomes hard to decide what the film is about. In two hours, a smorgasbord of emotions is spread for one to devour-but as appetites go, one can only have so much to eat. So an excess of something-whether for the appetite, or for the emotional magnitude in a film, is not good.
Nair pays such minute attention to details that it seems as if Lahiri (on whose book the film is based) herself supervised the direction-a sort of a ‘ghost direction’. We get to see minute things-that would otherwise go unnoticed. The built up of the plot, the feel of the cities, the emotional stances of the characters-everything is presented with such precise detailing that by the time we’re half way through the film, we’ve seen more than we can remember. This detailing, in particular, takes some joy away from the experience of watching the film. What, for example, is to be concluded from the scene in which just before giving birth to Gogol, Tabu asks the nurse to give her longer clothing, which covers her legs completely? It has already been established that Tabu’s character is a traditional Indian woman-and to belabour that seems superfluous. That sort of a thing suits a book-a reader has to ‘imagine’ events as they take place. But in a medium which is primarily dependent on visual perceptions, the need to over emphasize is a waste of resources.
Along with the multitude of detailing, the themes also, are too many. Immigrant’s culture shock, a kid growing up with an uncommon name, the same kid’s angst as he grows up, death in the family, the grown up Gogol’s break-up and marriage (and break-up again)-and somewhere in the middle of the potpourri of events, it is for the viewer to remember that the film’s pièce de résistance is Gogol’s struggle with accepting his name-and his father’s reason for giving him that name. Ironically, in a detail clad film, the scene in which Ashoke tells Gogol about why he chose the name, is dismissed hastily. The father and son moment takes place when they’re on their way to buy ice-cream for Gogol’s girlfriend-very uncharacteristic of an Indian father to choose a mundane and unceremonious way of sharing a secret.
A lot is said about how the acting in a particular film can compensate for other failures. Unfortunately, that principle doesn’t apply very well to The Namesake. The performances are good, no doubt, but because the film is plot centric, even powerful performances do not aid a meandering plot. After Ashoke’s death, Ashima wants to resume singing. But why was she waiting? She could have sung just as well, while Ashoke was alive. Actually she does sing a lullaby for him, when he wakes up after an unexplained nightmare. The last we see of her is her singing melodiously, having sold her house inNew York, and having declared that she wanted to be free. And Gogol, eventually does warm up to the fact his name held some emotional importance-we see him reading Nikolai Gogol’s collection of short stories that his father gave him as a present. Gogol’s disposition, by the end of the film is unknown to us-break up, death of his father and his wife’s infidelity seemed to have weighed little on him-but he smiles as he reads the writer Gogol’s short story-that smile, to my mind was not one that came from unalloyed happiness, it was a smile that is the mark of ambivalence. And ambivalence is what I felt too, by the end of the film-with its excellent performances; it has its unpardonable excesses too. Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, I guess, so too much detailing spoils the plot.