Monday, December 10, 2007

Monday Movie Review: The Namesake

The Namesake (2006) 6/10
Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), a Bengali professor living in New York, marries Ashima (Tabu) and brings her to the United States in 1974. Their American-born son Gogol (Kal Penn) struggles between his family's traditionalism and his desire to assimilate. Directed by Mira Nair.

The Namesake is a movie struggling to find itself. Although I haven't read the novel, and so have no idea how close it is to its source, it feels like a movie trying to slavishly follow a novel's plot and pacing. It has a novels way of rising and falling around events, without a clear flow of character or narrative arc. I wanted to take it apart, shake off the loose pieces, and put it back together with a more sound structure. Almost everything about the movie is appealing except its inability to tell a story.

This is the sort of movie I see all the time and don't bother to write a full review of. (After all, most weeks I see two or three movies and only review one here.) But it has some very good qualities that are worth discussing. First, of course, is the modern immigrant experience; arriving not on Ellis Island but at JFK International Airport, treated symbolically (if clumsily) in the movie as a sort of waystation; each time the Ganguli family passes through JFK they pass between worlds; between states of being. Ashoke and Ashima are always aliens in their adopted country, their traditions don't fit in. And looking at it, you can certainly see how most of our traditions didn't fit in at one point, and how the first generation born here struggled with a foot in each world.

There's a fascinating anti-feminist feminist component about The Namesake. I realize that sounds contradictory, so hang in there.

In the course of the movie, there are two women in Gogol's life. They are incredibly poorly-written characters, stereotypes of Evil Feminists or Evil Modernism or something else Evil and Female. Their evils are variously independence, informality, premarital sex, wearing short skirts, and disrespecting tradition. The feeling at the end of the movie, when the family comes to a particular sort of resolution but the Evil Women are cast aside, is of misogyny.

Rethinking my position involves spoilers about the end. Continue at your own risk.

Upon some consideration, I began to see that I was viewing The Namesake entirely from my American point of view. I started to think about the mother. Ashima was in training as a singer at the beginning of the movie. At the end, having fulfilled her duties as a wife and mother—her children married or engaged, her husband's ashes given to the Ganges—she prepares to return to India and her guru to pick up her training where she left off.

Here's what's interesting: In Hinduism, there is the concept of the dharma of the householder. A man is expected to fulfil his dharma; the social obligations that are also his spiritual duties, and these include marrying, having children; being a husband, father, wage-earner, and householder. Once his dharma is fulfilled, in old age he can enter into another phase of life, renouncing his household and seeking after spiritual matters. Although there is self-denial in this next phase (celibacy, fasting, etc.), it is a kind of selfishness; after you've finished looking after your family you can look after yourself (spiritually). But this retirement phase of life belongs exclusively to men. Women continue to maintain the house while the men become wandering ascetics. From the pont of view of traditional Hinduism, Ashima's decision to leave the country where her children reside and return to her own life path is a feminist one; she is seeking the self-fulfillment normally accorded exclusively to men.

Gogol's younger sister Sonia is a minor character, given very little real flesh in the movie. But significantly to my point, at the end of the film, she is engaged to a non-Indian, and her mother approves. What seems to be happening is a kind of weighing of different forms of modernity. Sonia can marry outside of Hinduism, and that's okay, but she must fulfill the householder portion of her dharma, because not to do so is not okay. Each character seems to be a kind of lens through which to view assimilation. The movie is, in fact, willing to be feminist to the same degree that it's willing to let its male characters move past traditional roles—only somewhat. Still, despite having a male star, it seems in some ways more concerned with women's roles and the problems Hindu women face, as embodied by Ashima.

Anyway, this isn't much of a movie review. I didn't like the movie, which is a shame, because it had some strong ideas and performances. But it was fascinating, to me, to unpack its apparent sexism and see it through a different cultural lens.

(It is my dharma to cross-post.)