A first-generation American teenager, Gogol (Kal Penn) is struggling under the name that his Indian immigrant engineer father, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), gave him. The struggle is because of the ribbing from high school classmates and even younger sister Sonia (Sahira Nair). He wants to be called, "Nick," which is closer to his formal name, Nikhil, and more American.
Not that "Gogol" is Indian. It is in deference to Russian author Nikolai Gogol whose story, "The Overcoat," miraculously saved Ashoke's life in a 1974 train crackup, three years before he and his new wife, Ashima (the beautiful Tabu), arrived in the United States.
At first glance, Director Mira Nair's "The Namesake" may seem to be another cross-cultural conflict film like her "Mississippi Masala" (1991). But based on Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, it is much more. With finely etched engrossing performances, Nair and longtime screenwriting partner Sooni Taraporevala tell an epic story that takes us three decades through the life of an Indian couple and their American-born children. The focus is their effort to assimilate into all things American, while not losing sight of their deep roots in India.
As the kids hit adolescence, they dive into pot smoke, rock 'n' roll and the "awesome" U.S. vernacular. Enrolling in Yale for an architecture degree, Gogol/Nick soon hooks up with blond WASP princess, Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), and his Americanization appears almost complete. This is despite a roots-seeking trip to Calcutta, where the family views the splendor of the Taj Mahal, as the kids balk at Indian ways.
However, the film's last act has a devastating emotional moment that causes the family to rethink modern values, embracing the power of its blood line. In fact, Gogol drops Maxine and marries a pretty, but unstable Indian-American girl, Moushumi (Zuleika Robinson), which may not be a wise decision.
Though ultimately a loving endorsement of the importance of family tradition, the real heroes of "The Namesake" are the devoted, courageous parents, Ashoke and Ashima, who provide role models as solid as stone pillars, yet remain humorous and human.
Go see "The Namesake" and experience a moving family saga that transcends all cultures in its embrace of one.