The Namesake: The Book and the Film

by Amit Shankar Saha

Literature and film are two very different mediums and when a literary work is adapted successfully on celluloid, cinematic considerations have to be made. While novels have the advantage of keeping readers involved for a considerable period of time, films have only a couple of hours to keep viewers engrossed. On the other hand, the film has visuals and music that impact the mind and stay in the memory for a long time. Since the media are different, oftentimes it is not an easy task to say -whether a book or its film adaptation is better. In the case of The Namesake, though not exactly like the book, Mira Nair's film is still a faithful representation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel.

Fundamentally, the book and the film both deal with the same topic of displacement and the creation of identity and the film is, for the most part, true to the narrative of the novel. It is only incidental that in the film Ashoke and Ashima come to New York instead of Boston, as the Queensboro Bridge over the East River in New York and the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly in Calcutta cinematically connect the two cities and help in the comparison of two different cultures. While the film opens with Ashoke Ganguli's train accident and progresses linearly with his arranged marriage to Ashima and their migration to the US, the book opens with the impending birth of Gogol and then flashes back to narrate Ashoke's train accident and marriage. The book informs the readers about how Ashoke was miraculously rescued from the accident site very early in the story even though Gogol comes to know about it much later. Interestingly, the film keeps the viewers in the dark about how Ashoke was rescued until the moment when Gogol learns of it also. Thus, when Ashoke, looking at his newly born child, remarks that his rescue from the shattered train was the first miracle of his life and Gogol's birth is the second miracle, it does not cause as much impact as the written words of the book do.

The novel is dense in details and many incidents that occur in the book naturally do not find a place in the film. For example, the film leaves out the Montgomerys, who were Ashoke and Ashima's first neighbors in the US and with whom they shared a washing machine. This omission occasions Ashima's visit to a seamy launderette and her realization that woolens shrink in a washing machine. This seemingly ordinary event leads to an endearing scene between Ashoke and Ashima depicting how the newlyweds find each other's company comforting in an alien land. But this added scene comes at the cost of the interactions with the Mongomerys that illustrate cultural misperceptions, such as where Ashima mistakenly assumes that the Montgomerys, as Americans, must be Christian, when in fact they are Buddhist, and where Judy Montgomery mistakenly assumes that the Gangulis, being Indians, are vegetarians, though they are not.

The growth of Gogol occurs at an unhurried pace in the novel, but due to obvious time constraints, the film had to leave out a few vital incidents in Gogol's life. One such incident is when Ashima lifts the child Gogol high over her head and a stream of undigested milk regurgitates from Gogol's mouth into Ashima's open mouth. This scene puts the mother-son relationship into a new perspective, emphasizing unseen ties that bind a family. Instead, much of Gogol's life in the film revolves around his romance with Maxine and his failed marriage with Moushumi. His growing-up romances with Kim and Ruth are deleted from the film script. Similarly, Moushumi's relationship and break-up with Graham is only cursorily mentioned in the film whereas the novel was able to offer details of the relationship, thereby garnering greater sympathy for her character. However, given the number of episodes in the characters' lives the film does touch upon, it seems preposterous to demand for more exposition or for greater depth.

Ashoke's death is pivotal in both the novel and the film. In the novel, Gogol becomes aware of the significance of his connection to the author, Nikolai Gogol, as an adolescent beginning to seek autonomy from his family, and from an early age begins to resent his namesake. In the film, Ashoke does not tell his son about his rescue from the train accident until shortly before his death, at that time revealing the impact in his life of the expatriate Russian writer, and the true reason behind his son's name. Perhaps this is why the film does not end with Gogol retrieving The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, gifted to him long ago by his father, and finally reading its first story, "The Overcoat." The film conjures another episode at the end, to show Ashima back in Calcutta practicing Indian classical vocal.

Despite all these variances the film is craftily made. Like the book, it faithfully renders what it set out to explore-the universal themes of migration and ambivalence of living simultaneously in two worlds. A tribute to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, as the credit titles suggest, the film is not the run-of-the-mill clichÈ-ridden diaspora stuff with lots of melodrama. There is no doubt that it has been influenced by the aforementioned masters' standard of filmmaking. That Mira Nair successfully negotiates such a daunting proposition is proof of her talent. The scene where Ashima looks through the pier glass window at the lonely figure of Ashoke walking through the snow to work speaks volumes for the depiction of the state of alienation in a foreign land that hundreds of words might fail to deliver. Similarly, when Ashima steps into Ashoke's shoes, the low-angle shots of Ashima in her would-be husband's shoes aptly display her clandestine pleasure. Often when the literary medium puts up a challenge, the aid comes in music (from Bauls and Bhatiali to Bollywood and Blues) and visuals (how the narrative pauses when the Ganguli family visits the Taj Mahal!). The scenes of the Howrah station, Ghosh's voice urging Ashoke to go abroad, and Ashoke's enigmatic presence even after his death generously compensate for any miniscule flaw. Overall it is Mira Nair's direction accompanied by competent acting from Irrfan Khan as Ashoke, Tabu as Ashima, Kal Penn as Gogol, Jacinda Barrett as Maxine, Zuleikha Robinson as Moushumi, and many others that make the film memorable and a grand success.