Mira Nair's compelling family unit of The Namesake makes this her best film to date. Adapting Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, she tells the story of Indian immigrants Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) who emigrate from India to New York and bring up their children, Sonia (Sahira Nair) and Gogol (Kal Penn). The latter has been named after the famously depressed and depressing Russian writer, which proves a source of contention, as well as inspiration, throughout his entire life.
Few film directors have captured the real immigrant experience with the uncanny empathy which Nair has here. It's refreshing to see such a tale, less wrapped up with economic survival than it is with the emotional. There are no cutes-y immigrant jokes about assimilation or funny accents: This family is, like so many, just as well-heeled--if not more--and sophisticated as any upscale American clan. Scenes of Gogol's encounters in a posh white world, whether at his architecture firm or with his blonde, culturally challenged girlfriend, Maxine, and her family and friends, have a fresh authenticity that will click in audience minds.
The film feverishly cuts back and forth between New York and India, aptly depicting the heady schizophrenia of immigrants torn between two homes. Aided by Frederick Elmes' lusciously sensitive cinematography, Nair's movie is alive to things seen and experienced for the first time by the newly arrived, be it the frozen twig Ashima notices from her first shabby Queens apartment window to the Taj Mahal itself, which her children gaze at in wonder. And just as perceptive is Nair's way with her actors, who deliver a gallery of unforgettably affecting performances.
One hopes, by the time Oscar nominations are announced next year, that Tabu's magnificent portrayal will not be forgotten. Her range is spellbinding here, going from the exquisite, painted young bride who, in her New World innocence, tearfully shrinks her husband's entire wardrobe at the laundromat, to a traditionally possessive mother ensconced in her elegant Westchester pile, and finally, the heartbreakingly dignified widow who realizes the need to let go of what she loves most. Khan has the less showy role, but he impresses mightily nevertheless, with his nobility of spirit and quiet intelligence. Penn goes way beyond the facile comedy roles he's seemed trapped in and is utterly convincing, whether playing the callous young yuppie, too busy with Maxine (an amusing, affecting Jacinda Barrett) to be with family, or the maturing soul who finally realizes the depth of blood connections. As Moushumi, the Bengali girl considered the perfect wife for him, Zuleikha Robinson conveys potent sensuality and smarts, as Elmes' camera worships the beauty of the line of her throat on a first date.
The Namesake is also graced with one of the best music scores heard in years, by Nitin Sawhney. It's a pungent masala of modern raga, urban hiphop and a lovely, surprising--and obligatory--Bollywood musical moment on Gogol's wedding night.