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American Immigrant Saga 'The Namesake' Has South Asian Flavor


The American immigrant saga has a South Asian flavor in a new film adapted from the best-selling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri about two generations of a Bengali family living in the United States. Alan Silverman has a look at The Namesake.

Gogol Ganguli may have been born in America, but his story begins in Calcutta where, years before he is born, his parents - Ashoke and Ashima - are brought together by their parents in an arranged marriage.

"Won't he be there?" asks Ashima and their match is sealed. Ashoke is studying engineering in New York and Ashima does her best to adapt to their new life in America.

Their first-born is Gogol, named for the Russian author whose books carry a special meaning for Ashoke; but, as he grows older in a country of Bob's and Charlie's and Harry's, Gogol is constantly reminded he is perceived as different.

"I don't think it's about culture. I think it's a very universal kind of American story, if anything else, about a family," says Kal Penn, an American-born actor with family roots in India, stars as Gogol. The New Jersey native says he can identify with some of the character's attitudes and relationships. "There are some parallels like, obviously, being the first generation [child] of Indian parents; but that's not really, to me, what the story is about at all. I think the identity portion of the story is Ashima's character. She is the one who really goes through the identity arc and fitting in with American society. Gogol, on the other hand, is born and raised in America. He is bilingual. He is very comfortable with all of that and it's other people who always take issue with his identity," he says. "Even with his girlfriend, Maxine, asks him if his parents want him to marry a nice Indian girl and he is, like, 'I don't know. I don't care what they want. What I want is something else.'"

Jacinda Barrett plays Gogol's girlfriend, a blonde New Yorker with deep family roots in America. Australia-born Barrett says the culture conflict in the story resonates with her.

"For me, being an immigrant, I totally understand where the main character, Gogol, is coming from. Although I play a very different character who is from New York, lives in the same house she grew up in, is very affluent and very at ease with her place in the world and has no pulling to a life that she came from, as opposed to the life that she's living. So my character was very different from me. I more respond to Gogol's perspective, which is your history being in another country and being torn ...and the sort of duality of two cultures," she says.

"I think there is a real universality of any one of us who has left a homeland for another, whether it is a country or another city," says director Mira Nair - Indian-born, Harvard-educated and now living in New York and her husband's native Uganda. She says she was drawn to The Namesake after reading the novel and recognizing in it experiences shared by immigrants in every generation. I think the thing about coming to America is that America is this vast place made up of others like you who have come from other places, but there is, at the same time, a quality of wanting to be 'American.' The interesting thing about the Ganguli family in The Namesake is they have the parents very much in between worlds and then Gogol who burns to be American ...not Indian-American, but full-on American. That is also a very interesting push-and-pull."

The Namesake cast includes two top stars of 'Bollywood,' Irrfan Khan and Tabu, as Gogol's parents Ashoke and Ashima. London-born Zuleikha Robinson plays the worldly Bengali bride who marries Gogol; and the film features locations from the busy streets of New York and Calcutta to the stunning vista of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

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