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THE NAMESAKE (article first published : 2007-05-7)

Mira Nair, who gave us the enchanting Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala/i>, is a director who always draws the very best out of her casts, makes the most of her characters and crafts intricately and lovingly woven tales centred on clashes of culture and tradition.

The Namesake, a compelling new drama featuring a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, is no exception.

Spanning two continents, two cultures and a period from the mid-70s through to present day, the film unfolds the story of an Indian family - from the meeting and arranged marriage of the parents through the birth, growth, education, adulthood and marriage of their two independently minded children.

It's a tale that unfurls, as many have observed already, like a mini-series. Yet, while episodic, it's all thanks to her deft directing talent that Nair's drama, embroidered with incidental humour, unfolds so smoothly and so comprehensively over just two hours.

Beautifully shot by Frederick Elmes in both India and America, and presented mostly in English, with occasional subtitles, the film is of further note for giving a meaty role to an actor who has sunk his acting chops into only junk fare until now - namely Van Wilder, its recent sequel and the earlier Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.

He's amiable Kal Penn and he turns in a highly commendable performance as Gogol, a young man named after his father's favourite Russian author - hence, the movie title.

Gogol, who later takes the name Nick, is born and raised in New York, where his parents, Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), move in 1977 and slowly build a mutual affection, then love, in the years that follow a marriage arranged in Calcutta by their respective parents.

But Gogol arrives only in the second quarter of a film which takes time to first paint a picture of the traditions and aspirations of his parents. In so doing, Nair provides a sharper and clearer contrast between the parents' hopes and history and the ambitions and attitudes of Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia (Sahira Nair), in a progressive new world where they embrace a new culture.

The film focuses on the drama that embraces all members of the family, notably Gogol, who tends to want to shun tradition - until a tragedy spurs a rethink.

Supporting characters include Gogol's girlfriends, wealthy Max (Jacinda Basset, in a role for which Kate Hudson and Natalie Portman were reportedly considered) and a geek-turned-sexpot (Zuleikha Robinson).

Performances are uniformly good but Khan and the gorgeous Tabu, long a popular draw in Indian cinema, are particularly affecting in a film that is both charming and heart-warming. Rating: 8/10. - Billy Suter




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