Identity Crisis


The Namesake, Mira Nair’s film of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, takes globalization-for most of us no more than a concept dealt with in newspaper editorials-and turns it into something concrete, sensuous, funny, and dramatic. The purely economic aspects are there behind the scenes, but in the movie’s foreground are emotional discontents, family fissures, farcical developments, and, above all, the shakiness of identities in a shrinking world.

A young man of Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli, discovers the fleetingness of life when he is nearly killed in a 1974 train wreck and decides to see as much of the world as possible. For him, to be out in the great wide world is to be in America. He lands a good academic post in the States but returns to India for an arranged marriage. His bride, Ashima, has trouble since America seems both physically and socially cold to her, but gradually she adjusts. Their firstborn is named Gogol in honor of the Russian author whose short-story collection containing “The Overcoat” saved Ashoke’s life after the accident when a rescue worker, who at first thought Ashoke was dead, noticed the volume trembling in his hand. For the resurrected Ashoke, the name “Gogol” is a magic nexus of life affirmation and world culture. (Plus an inside joke: at the beginning of “The Overcoat,” there is much fuss about finding a proper name for the newborn hero.)

But for the boy Gogol, his name epitomizes his...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.