The immigrant experience is like no other. For those who are born in America (or have been here long enough to absorb all its nuances), moving through the culture is accomplished with little effort and less thought. Does a fish know it's swimming in water? All is familiar: language, cultural cues, dress, expectations. But for the immigrant, every word, every gesture, every item on the grocery shelves of the local market, are new, often a mystery wrapped in a puzzle. It can be exhausting and isolating, a constant struggle to decode what everyone else takes for granted.




"The Namesake," based on the lyrical novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a lovely film about a newly married couple, Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) Gangulis, who come to America from Bangladesh, India. They leave a country that is replete with color, where they are deeply enmeshed in its traditions, and surrounded by family. The Bengal culture is as complex and layered as any ancient culture can be, a glimpse offered up when the couple marry just prior to leaving. It is a beautiful and baroque ceremony, but also decidedly different from what is regarded as a generic "western" wedding.




Suddenly they are in New York City, it's winter, the bleak roof tops covered with snow, a gray patina saturates the landscape, their loneliness palatable. In one lovely scene, Ashima stands alone in a sparse flat, looking out at the urban skyline, dressed in her sari, the distance between what she has left behind and where she is now immeasurable and wrenching.




Gradually the years pass and they have a family. And so the Kabuki dance of culture begins in earnest, the traditions of the country of origin are in tension with those of the adopted country. The children, Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair), are quick to adapt and often view the exigencies of the traditional Bengal culture as a burden to be tolerated but never fully embraced. Even when the family makes a pilgrimage back to India, the children are intrigued but never entranced by the profound contrasts. Gogol falls in love with a lovely college classmate, Maxine, East Coast preppie, her parents wealthy and socially established. The meeting between Maxine and Gogol's parents is a scene that captures perfectly the cultural chasm that can seem insurmountable.




In the end, this film is about identity. For emigres and their children, whose lives are bridged by two decidedly distinct cultures, forging a sense of self can be daunting. Gogol, for example, struggles with his name, wanting to use his other given name, Michael, which is absent the strange, lilting sound &

foreign" if you will &

coming off a New Yorker's tongue that Gogol Gangulis has. Of course it isn't just about a name, but about becoming a person, separate from yet part of something greater than self. "The Namesake" explores this theme in a film that is both insightful and poignant.