Nair raising tale

THE NAMESAKE directed by Mira Nair, written by Sooni Taraporevala from the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, with Kal Penn, Tabu and Irfan Khan. A Fox SearchLight release. Some subtitles. 122 minutes. Opens Friday (March 9). For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNNN

India ahead of the U.S. when it comes to women’s status? Mira Nair thinks so.

When I mention to the director of Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and now The Namesake that she, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha are three female directors of South Asian background thriving in a male-dominated profession, she laughs.

“We call ourselves the Charlie’s Angels of the Punjab,” she says. “We’re all from Punjab, Monsoon Wedding land. It’s earthy, loud and brash.”

Then she turns thoughtful.

“Not to speak for the other two, but I grew up with women in major positions of power, whether it was the freedom movement, the prime ministership or a bank. All my life there were women leading in ways that in America they’re still having conniptions about. They can’t even consider Hillary Clinton as president without having a stomach ache.

“For me, there was the confidence that I could do anything. I don’t think it’s the same in the Western world. The message is very subliminal: ‘Men do this, women don’t. ‘”

Nair’s latest film, easily one of her best, is adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, an intergenerational tale of Indian immigrants in America.

Ashoke and Ashima (played respectively by Irfan Khan and Bollywood star Tabu) are newlyweds who have emigrated to New York City. They barely know each other – the marriage was arranged – but they build a connection and a life with their two children, including Gogol (Kal Penn), whose symbolic name comes from a mysterious, life-changing incident in Ashoke’s past. (WARNING : PLOT SPOLIER)

Nair thinks people can relate to the film because, whether they’re immigrants or not, most have left one place for another.

“It might just be from Edmonton to Toronto,” she smiles, the savvy interviewee, “but everyone’s struggling with that question of whether you can go home again. And I think cinema, even more than literature, is a potent medium for stories about exile. We do live in many places at once, and film can show that.”

Nair picked up the novel at the recommendation of actor Gabriel Byrne, who starred in her last film, Vanity Fair. Once she started reading it on a plane, she was hooked.

“I dropped everything. I was possessed,” she says. “I knew I had to make the film and make it soon. I bought the rights within a week. Nine months later we were shooting.”

Having recently lost her live-in mother-in-law, Nair connected with the book’s theme of family loss. She calls the film her most personal to date.

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“It’s so much about the emotions I went through,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made this film, and wouldn’t have made it this way, if I hadn’t experienced that. It was also about the saga, not just the 1970s Calcutta that I had grown up in, but also the cool pulse of today’s Manhattan where I live part-time, which has this very confident South Asian presence and creativity.”

Ironically, it was her teenage son who recommended Penn (Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle) for the key role of Gogol.

“I didn’t know who he was,” she laughs, “and I didn’t take it seriously until Kal wrote to me and literally flew himself in to audition. I wasn’t concerned that he couldn’t do drama I thought Gogol had to be a dashing young man, and Kal’s public persona in his other movies is goofy, not dashing. He convinced me.”

During a Namesake press screening at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, a theatre full of jaded, yakkety film writers collectively sobbed, laughed, then sobbed again. Mair nods.

“It’s really been like nothing else I’ve seen,” she says. “With Monsoon Wedding, people were dancing in the aisles, but with this film…. The rhythms of laughter and sorrow are very palpable.”

THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair) Rating: NNNN

The Namesake successfully adapts Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about love and loyalty in an immigrant Indian family in the U.S.

Director Nair has a genuine feel for her settings and characters, carefully contrasting the slow-growing affection between arranged couple Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) with the breezy attitude of their westernized son, Gogol (Kal Penn), an architect with little knowledge – or interest – in his parents’ past.

The actors live and breathe their roles, their aging (the film spans 30 years) helped by some astonishing makeup. As in Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, you won’t want it to end, but you’ll feel perfectly satisfied (if a little weepy) when it does. GS

Additional Audio Interview Clips

On shooting at the Taj Mahal

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On her upcoming documentary about the Beatles in India

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