Jhumpa Lahiri, as a writer of short stories, is nothing short of brilliant. Her gift is an eye for the poignant minutiae that reflect and illustrate an inner life—an unworn cocktail dress relegated to the back of a closet, a homesick woman’s fear of driving, an unshared newspaper cone of puffed rice. In her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, her characters live quiet, not particularly remarkable lives, not with unusual wisdom or bravery or strength, but they live.
Disappointingly, the attention to detail that was so telling in her short stories was tedious and plodding in her novel, The Namesake. Her prose was as elegant as ever, but the characters, weighed down with precisely and meticulously described trappings of life, lost all personality. The somewhat aimless book follows the quiet history of an Indian-American family, narrowing in on the trifles of their lives at the expense of real emotional resonance.
The immigrant parents’ fight to maintain their cultural heritage in a confusing new world, set against their Americanized children’s struggles for independence, is relatable, but dully and distantly told. The novel's central conflict is distilled in the son's preoccupied relationship with his unconventional name (Gogol) and the story behind it. Unfortunately, his personality was not much deeper than this driving preoccupation, and his succession of love interests not much more than (flat) plot devices. Occasionally it read more as a documentary than as a novel.
It is difficult to adapt such a slow book for cinema. Mira Nair brought to it her famously beautiful cinematography, but the overall succession of scenes is weakly, sometimes awkwardly linked. However, she has a saving grace in the casting, notably Tabu as Ashima, Gogol’s mother. Tabu realistically portrays the journey of the young, uncertain bride who is to become the mother of two “strangers”, as she says of her teenaged children in a moment of frustration, and is beautiful at every stage. The film's thin transitions, with scenes sometimes skipping months and years without any bridge, don’t affect our view of Ashima. We never lose sight of her character because Tabu’s portrayal is so rich we believe in her life off the screen.
Kal Penn is likeable as Gogol, if not particularly interesting, but then he didn’t have much to work with. The motives of Moushumi Mazoumdar, the woman Gogol is to marry, are less explored in the movie than in the book. The script would make it easy to dismiss the character as a villain, but Zuleikha Robinson has enough appeal to keep her from being entirely unsympathetic.
Things happen to Gogol and his family--joyful things, proud things, tragic things, things that break up the daily, mundane rounds of humanity. But they are never transformed into stories, and that is where The Namesake fails. It is a convincing and meticulous chronicle of the conflicts, sacrifices, and betrayals that connect one generation with the next...but it is a flat one made ponderous by its largely unnecessary two-hour running time.