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'Namesake,' a Family Comedy Spanning Eras


Filmmaker Mira Nair has often dealt with culture clashes in her movies, from "Mississippi Masala" to "Vanity Fair." But Bob Mondello says that her latest film, "The Namesake," the clashes are all contained within one single family.


BOB MONDELLO: Ashoke and Ashima meet as couples generally do in Calcutta - when their parents decide that they should get married. They are very different. Ashoke, worldly and a bit literary, having spent several years abroad; Ashima having never set foot on a plane before her new hubby takes her to New York. It's a big adjustment with some downsides. She shrinks virtually everything they own the first time she uses the dryer.

And some upsides, as she notes in her first letter home, marveling at how huge their tiny apartment is by Calcutta standards, and how luxurious it is that she can cook all day long.


TABU: (As Ashima Ganguli) The house is very nice, big, with lots of windows. Do you know over here we get gas all day and all night?

MONDELLO: When this couple have a child, they get a surprise at the hospital. In India, proper names sometimes aren't decided on for years. But their American baby needs a name before it can go home. Because Ashoke is a fan of the Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol, they called their son, Nikki Gogol Ganguli, figuring Nikki will be their son's good name and Gogol their pet name for him.

But it's the pet name that sticks at school, and when he gets older, he worries.


KAL PENN: (As Gogol Ganguli) I've been thinking a lot about my name. Gogol's fine on my high school diploma. But can you mention Gogol on a resume or a credit card after that?

IRFAN KHAN: (As Ashoke Ganguli) What are you trying to say?

PENN: (As Gogol Ganguli) I'd like to change my name back to my good name.

TABU: (As Ashima Ganguli) What is done is done. Now, Gogol, has become your good name?

Mr. KHAN (As Ashoke Ganguli) It's too complicated now.

MONDELLO: What's in a name? Well, a lot as it happens - especially for a character trying to assert an inter-cultural identity. Much as Ashoke and Ashima had to make their way in a foreign land, their teenage son must now figure out his place in the world, and director Mira Nair shifts gears so that we can figure it out with him. Following him to Calcutta, where he looks at home but feels foreign, and on dates with his blonde New England girlfriend, where there's also a disconnect of sorts.

"The Namesake" courses with a novel's luxuriousness, through two generations, two hemispheres and two utterly different worlds. So Nair needed to match performers and lifestyles pretty carefully. As Gogol, she cast a very funny Kal Penn, exhibiting emotional range that was not even hinted at when he starred in the goofy, stoner comedy "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle." And as his tradition-minded but non-traditional folks, Nair cast Bollywood stars Irfan Khan and Tabu. They make art house films in India and lent an art house air to this one.

Unfamiliar names for the movie crowd in this country, but names likely to make a crowd pleaser of a rich family comedy named "The Namesake."

I'm Bob Mondello.


NORRIS: Jazz pianist Joe Sample and the singer Randy Crawford are together again for a new CD. That's coming up next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.