The Namesake

Last week I took my mom to a free screening of Mira Nair’s latest film, The Namesake – which is based off of Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of the same name.

While waiting in line for the film, we were chatting with an elderly caucasian couple. It was a bizarre conversation…
the likes of which I haven’t had since I lived in Omaha, Nebraska over 20 years ago. “You know my hairdresser is from India… she does my highlights perfectly. You know, I am so impressed by how well people from India speak English. Such a marvelous grasp of the language.” To which I replied, “We were occupied and oppressed by the British for 200 years, it’s one of the few good things they left us.” She looked surprised as if I had just delivered breaking news and then has the nerve to ask “But didn’t they lift up your people’s standard of living?” Holy crap… did she just say that? What the hell was she thinking? That European powers went out and conquered foreign lands out of the kindness of their hearts? Luckily, the doors opened and we were let in! Now, back to the movie…

This is a story of a Bengali family that leaves Kolkata (Calcutta) in the 70s and moves to New York to start a new life. There have been a few films recently dealing with immigrants from India living in the west, but this is the first time I can remember the main characters were from the same part of India as my family. Infact, every Bengali I know who has read the novel says the same thing “Wow, reading this book was exactly like my life.” Some of the major actors and actresses are from Bollywood, and if you’ve never seen a Hindi language film…you’ll certainly recognize Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame. Kal Penn plays it straight in this film and shows he can do a fine job as a serious actor.

As with other movies about the immigrant experience in America, you will see some common themes:

  • parents leave their homeland for better education and/or work opportunities
  • children growing up caught between two worlds. They often compensate by going overboard trying to fit in.
  • children engaged in romantic relationship with white American boy or girl.
  • as they age the American born children finally come to respect and appreciate the customs and values from their homeland

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These themes will be repeated in books and films about immigrants for a long time to come. What this film does offer is a really good insight into Bengali culture in America. It was refreshing seeing Indian Americans depicted as something different from stoic doctors and loud taxi drivers or 7-11 clerks. Especially in our post 9-11 world. (Indians have been the victims of harassment and hate crimes since 2001.)

This is definately one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

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