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No Damp Squib

Good Friday, and a holiday. I woke up and read the papers in leisure. Last night, I penned some thoughts on the Namesake. I forgot to mention that the movie was such a deserved breather far from the typical diaspora spoofs. I mean, while I did enjoy the likes of Monsoon Wedding, Pride and Prejudice, Bend it Like Beckham and so on, they all reminded me of VS Naipul and his House For Mr Biswas and the common satire about Indian life. Come on, its OK to laugh at ourselves but beyond a point, it gets a bit too much. Which is why I think most Indian writers in English and Indian filmmakers have their works generously peppered with jokes and cynicism about the home country that they become a thicket of sterotypes.

I say, even if Namesake did have sprinklings of it, it was all done in very good taste. But today's HT had a write-up by some Swapan Seth, a Punjabi who grew up in Kolkata, married a Bengali, and who called the film a "damp squib." I totally disagree with the finer sentiments in his piece. He says an Indian family's dilemma in the US is old,warm beer and that the film is bereft of a finer point. What is the crux of the plot? The young Gogol is pissed with his name. Every driver in Kolkata is called Swapan, so does that that call for cinematic outcry? These are Mr Seth's arguments.

Cinema celebrates life. You don't need a peg or a solid theme. It can begin from anywhere and end as unpredictably as life itself. And where Mira Nair scores is in the beautiful presentation of a family's journey through time, places and with the emotions in play. Through marriage, Ashima finds herself bang in the heart of New York and together, she and Ashoke embark on a journey of self discovery and their own growing closeness, albeit not expressed most of the time. That is so true of most Indian couples belonging to a certain generation. You don't need that 'total open' communication to communicate. And that also tells in Ashoke's relationship with his son Gogol, played brilliantly by actor Kal Penn.

Ashoke's love for his son is immense but, again, he is laconic. So there are times when you just want them to hug and break the wall. But you sense the filmmaker's deliberateness.Thus the gooses. Especially in the scene where Gogol is preparing to leave for university. Drowned in hard rock music in his room, his father's entry brings a halt. He is disinterested in what his father, who brings a book to gift him, has to say. But when he stands at his door before leaving and tells him "one day you will understand why you are called Gogol," there is a minute's silence. But Gogol is still piqued at being called Gogol. When he starts dating a white girl, he changes his name to Nikhil. When he brings home his girlfriend Max (short for Maxine) to meet his parents, Ashima wonders what kind of a girl is called Max. And though a little taken aback when Max addresses them by their names, their hospitality does not fall short of expectations. It is during this time that Ashoke takes out Gogol on the pretext of buying icecream after lunch and reveals in the car the secret behind the name: it is inspired by his favourite Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. [Better late than never].

Not that it takes the burden off his name. But some time later, when news of his father's death reach him, he rushes to his professor father's apartment and undergoes a catharis of feelings. The scene is touching when Gogol enters a hair salon soon after and shaves off his head amid the blaring music, the hip hopper black guy doing his job oblivious of his customer's grim and solemn countenance. There are flashes of memory, of his father doing the same that he watched as a kid. He doesn't understand why. When his mom meets him at the airport, she looks at him and says, "you didn't need to do this". He replies: "I just felt like it." And you know it's the respect, the reverence for the one you love. So, Gogol it will be, now and forever.

As for Mr Seth and what's in a name, ask thy folks.


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