WHAT’S MY NAME?
(3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars)
DIRECTED BY MIRA NAIR
STARRING: IRRFAN KHAN, TABU, KAL PENN
122 MINUTES, RATED PG-13
How frustrating it must be to be Kal Penn. In an industry preoccupied with movies about young, beautiful white people, this smart, charismatic, and funny Indian actor has had to do everything but reinvent the wheel to get a chance to break out of Hollywood’s stereotypical pipeline. He first did it in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, exhibiting a penchant for the more intellectual form of immaturity that made the stoner cult hit one of the smartest comedies of the last decade.
But that blip on the radar aside, Penn fans have then been forced to wince through a long drought of clichéd Hollywood comedies. Penn was forced to play it dumb in Van Wilder 2, play it wacky in Epic Movie, and even go the terrorist route in several episodes of this year’s 24.
But for all those fans who watched his turns in these clunkers with dismay, take note: The Namesake re-establishes this young man as one of the most promising actors of his generation.
Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestselling novel, and directed by Mira Nair—the inspiring force behind 2002’s joyful Monsoon Wedding — The Namesake is the multi-generational story of a Bengali husband and wife trying to make the turbulent transition from Calcutta to America, and the struggles faced by their children in honoring their Indian roots while embracing their American future.
Kal Penn plays Gogol—the son to soft-spoken but well-meaning father Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and the strong, independent, but soft-hearted Ashima (Tabu)—the main character of a story that comes to center around his identity crisis, self-discovery, and reinvention.
For that matter, every member of this family comes to reinvent themselves. Ashoke, a shy and timid man who, early in the movie, can barely muster the courage to stare into the eyes of the woman he hopes to woo, later becomes the grounded center of a family that must occasionally survive through rough waters.
Ashima, meanwhile, suffers a difficult transition to the American way of life, flying overseas with her new husband but leaving her heart behind in Calcutta, with her mother. It is only later, as the years drift by and her children grow older, that her heart finally finds equal footing in the West.
In his earliest scenes, it becomes clear that all Gogol wants—much like most children—is to fit in. He views anything that makes him stand out—his clothing, his name, his personal history—as an obstacle, and so he runs as far in the opposite direction. He dates an affluent, white Yale classmate, and shuns his own family to spend weeks with her at her parents’ beach-side summer house. He starts going by a different name, is uncomfortable when his girlfriend meets his parents for the first time, and feels awkward at parties, where he is the only dark-skinned attendee.
That all changes when a family crisis shatters Gogol, who is overcome with guilt at having turned his back on his heritage. Shaving his head, leaving his girlfriend, making a pilgrimage to Calcutta in mourning, and pursuing a relationship with an Indian girl first introduced to him by his mother, Gogol for the first time fully embraces his name, his heritage, and commits himself to honoring his roots.
Yet in the film’s final acts, The Namesake proves itself to be about far more than just the bumpy road of life, the awkward clash of cultures, or the ups and downs of family. This story is really about Gogol’s quest for an answer as to how he should live his life—about this young architect who can design towering skyscrapers but can’t quite discern how to construct the bridge between him and his past.
As played so bravely by Penn, Gogol is a distraught boy—and then a passionate man—adrift without a compass. He is the arrogant teenager who cares more about how his name looks on a school application than about why his parents chose that name for him in the first place. He is the twentysomething devastated by the agony of a tremendous loss, who pulls a 180 and steers his life on an entirely new course.
And then, only after those wild swings of the pendulum, is he a man set free; free of the need to blend in, free of the need to repay the debts of his ancestors, free from the worry of who he “should be” and allowed instead to discover the kind of man he wants to be.
In this regard, it’s the ultimate testament to why his parents endured all the hardships: For the chance to discover the American Dream.