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The Namesake Tells my Parentsí Story Again, Not Mine But Thatís OK

New America Media, Commentary, Audio, Neelanjana Banerjee Posted: Mar 10, 2007

Editorís Note: When she heard Mira Nair was going to bring Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiriís novel The Namesake to the screen, Neelanjana Banerjee thought she knew what to expect. But her reaction to the movie surprised her. Neelanjana Banerjee is editor-in-chief of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

SAN FRANCISCO - When I heard that renowned filmmaker Mira Nair was making a movie version of Jhumpa Lahiriís novel The Namesake, I was disappointed. When the book came out in 2003, I read it twice, wanting very much to like it. After all, it was the first book so closely related to my own personal experience. The Gangulys in the book immigrate to America from West Bengal like my parents. They both had two children in America, a son and a daughter. Lahiriís writing is controlled and precise and when it comes to the details of the Bengali American experience, she has it down.

But still, I just didnít like it.

Namesake familyI think my uber-critical response to The Namesake has to do with the fact that though there is much hoopla about South Asian writers in America, itís first generation immigrant women who seem to be the ones getting book deals here. Their stories are, not surprisingly, about immigration and the lives of Indian women.

I had my hopes pinned on Lahiri, as the premier second generation South Asian American writer, to write a new story Ė one that I would really relate to as a second generation South Asian American. Instead I got her protagonist Ė Gogol. But Gogolís identity crisis didnít interest me that much. In fact, Gogol downright bored me. The Gangulys live in the Pleasantville of the Model Minority. When the characters were not struggling with the burden of their Indian culture and identity, they marched headlong into White America. There is barely a moment where the Gangulis interact with characters of any other race or ethnicity besides white or Indian.

Where is the South Asian communityís Junot Diaz, the Dominican American writer whose gritty collection Drown gave a powerful voice to the youth of his community? I donít even see independent books like Ed Linís Waylaid, about a Chinese American kid who grows up in his parentsí seedy motel on the Jersey Shore.

When I heard Mira Nair was bringing The Namesake to the screen, I just couldnít get excited. Of all the stories to tell, I thought I would have no interest in seeing Gogolís boring identity crisis played out on the big screen. I was over it.

But then, something strange happened. As soon as the lights went down and the opening credits began, complete with the actorsí names morphing from Bengali characters into English letters, I was engaged. Nair brought the sweetness of Lahiriís words to life. Watching Ashok and Ashima played amazingly by Indian actors Irrfan Khan and Tabu, fall in love, post-arranged marriage, was both powerful and delicate.

The Indian immigrant experience that I was chafing at so much in Lahiriís novel has never been portrayed with such beauty in American film: Ashimaís sari dragging through the snow of her first winter, the sterility of the hospital room where a pregnant Ashima grips the call button in desperation. These images left me breathless. Even Gogol, played earnestly and a little goofily by Kal Penn Ė best known as Kumar of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle Ė moved me, not so much with his identity crisis, but in the powerful scenes where he deals with the loss of his father.

I was shocked. How could I have had such a negative reaction to the book, but been totally swept away by the movie, though it stayed very faithful to the original text? I had no idea how powerful it would be to see a story that relates so closely to my family on the big screen. It was almost as though I was watching home movies of my parents.

I realized that while I was well versed in literature by South Asians about South Asians, my exposure to films which capture my unique experience are slim to none. Prominent South Asian American filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water) and Jay Chandrasekhar (Beerfest) are uninterested in making movies about the community and even in the indie world there seems to be a lack.

Now I am more than ready to pick up some innovative South Asian American literature: a South Asian American science fiction novel, or one in which the South Asian American protagonist fails out of high school or heads up a progressive hip hop group. Perhaps once we get this multiplicity of stories out there, our representation on the big screen will be quick to follow and Iíll be more critical. But for now, Iíll settle for seeing the immigrant story, again, told with Nairís bold colors and stunning shots.

Listen to Neelanjana Banerjee on UpFront

Listen to an interview with director Mira Nair on UpFront

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