Colour is the stuff of life in the movies of Mira Nair, the India-born director whose newest film, The Namesake, follows two generations of a Bengali family from late-1970s Kolkata to New York City. Her lush palette lends her films a throbbing physicality that invites you to step into the screen and embrace the sensuous here and now.
The Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, conveys a sense of people as living, breathing creatures who are far more complex than their words might indicate. The story of upwardly-mobile immigrants torn between tradition and modernity as they are absorbed into the American melting pot has been told in countless movies. This variation is gentle and compassionate.
Its steady, unhurried pace, its fascination with the rituals of daily life and its deep respect for characters who are continually evolving lift The Namesake above high-end soap opera. It may lack epic grandeur, but by the end, you feel you know these people well enough to keep in step with their internal rhythms.
The film has a crackling star performance by Kal Penn, who brings an offhanded charisma to the role of Gogol, the first-born child of Ashima (Tabu), a classically trained singer, and Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), an aspiring engineer, who move to America in 1977 after their arranged marriage in Kolkata.
Alone together in a foreign land in the middle of winter, the shy, polite newly-weds are virtual strangers and the movie captures their delicate process of mutual accommodation. Ashima’s initiation into American culture has gentle, humorous moments. She is astonished to discover gas stoves that work 24 hours a day and learns the hard way that wool sweaters should not be dumped into a washing machine.
A prologue looks back to a turning point in Ashoke’s life. Ashoke is reading The Overcoat, the famous story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, on a train trip in India in 1974. When the train crashes later in the trip, he survives miraculously, and the Gogol story becomes a totem in his life.
Years later, when his son is born, Ashoke is told that the baby cannot leave the hospital without a name. Ashoke impulsively calls his son Gogol. As the boy grows up, his ambivalence about his temporary name, which he embraces, then rejects (his formal name is Nikhil), becomes a metaphor for his divided cultural identity.
In high school, Gogol rebels against his family and behaves like a typical pot-smoking, rock-’n’-roll-loving American teenager. On a visit to Kolkata, he sneers at Indian ways.
Gogol eventually falls in love with Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a beautiful Bengali woman who lived a freewheeling life in Paris before coming to the US. His female counterpart, she is as culturally confused as he is, and the relationship runs into trouble.
Despite all the tensions in the Ganguli household, The Namesake expresses a reassuring faith in family solidarity. Avoiding the cliché of pitting disobedient immigrant children in pitched battles against tradition-bound parents from the old country, the film assumes that blood ties are the strongest bonds holding together the social order.
In the second half of the movie, the Ganguli parents step into the background as the focus shifts to Gogol. But instead of disappearing, Ashoke and Ashima loom as dignified, stabilizing pillars of tolerance and devotion whom their son and his younger sister, Sonia (Sahira Nair), cherish, even as they reject the old ways.
Stephen Holden/The New York Times
Little Miss Sunshine
The family that pops Prozac together stays together, perhaps, but the family that piles into an old Volkswagen bus the colour of a banana surely has more entertainment value.
That at least seems true of the happily unhappy relations at the centre of the bittersweet comedy of dysfunction, Little Miss Sunshine, a tale about genuine faith and manufactured glory that unwinds in the American Southwest, but more rightly takes place at the terminus of the American dream, where families are one bad break away from bankruptcy.
Little Miss Sunshine relates the story of the Hoovers, just around the time that the youngish, harried Sheryl (Toni Collette) takes her suicidal brother, Frank (Steve Carell), under her wing. Straight from the hospital, Frank moves in with Sheryl’s family, including her seven-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin); teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano); husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear); and father-in-law, a heroin-tooting crank simply called Grandpa (Alan Arkin).
The bandages on Frank’s wrists are as fresh as his wounds when he enters the Hoovers’ fold, a dim burrow filled with clutter and noise.
Eccentric families are a mainstay of comedy, and at least in their schematized personalities (the sullen son, the desperate dad), the Hoovers are not much different from most, despite the vials of white powder tucked in Grandpa’s fanny pack. But like most American comedy families, they are also a familiar social microcosm, a group of radically individualized souls in search of one another.
The means to that end is the competition of the film’s title, a child beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine. Soon after Frank moves in, Olive, a dumpling of a child with oversize glasses and a seemingly endless reserve of optimism, receives unexpected word that she has been invited to compete in Little Miss Sunshine, just days away.
Short of cash if not bright ideas, Richard decides to pile the fractious, reluctant brood into the family’s antique Volkswagen bus so that Olive can live out her dream.
Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t look particularly ambitious, in terms of either its narrative or its function-over-form visual style. But tucked in between all the hurt and the jokes, the character development and the across-the-board terrific performances are a surprisingly sharp look at contemporary America.
Manohla Dargis/The New York Times