There's a scene in Mira Nair's The Namesake, where Ashoke Ganguli tells his teenage son- Gogol, "we all came out of Gogol's Overcoat". This seemingly simple utterance resonates with profound meaning in light of the theme of the film. This is a very famous quotation that has been attributed to a number a Russian authors including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and highlights the fact that Nikolai Gogol's short story 'The Overcoat' has played a defining role in influencing the course of Russian literature. When uttered by Ashok in the film, it takes on a completely different meaning. It underscores the reason of conflict in young Gogol's mind, it justifies the title. At the point when this scene appears in the film, we do not know (unless we've already read Jhumpa Lahiri's eponymous book) what Ashoke means till a crucial scene between the father and son in the car much later. Suddenly, we know the reason behind Gogol's name – it's just not what you (as well as the protagonist – Gogol - in the film) thought all along – his daaknaam (pet name) is Gogol not simply because Nikolai Gogol is his father's favorite author…
Jhumpa Lahiri's Gogol Ganguli suffers from a strange identity crisis because "not only does (he) have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name". Mira Nair's Gogol has the same crisis, but we don't witness that as explicitly. In Mira Nair's world we don't see Gogol's parents having a tough time trying to explain to his teacher why he should be called by his bhalonaam (good name) in school; we get only a brief glimpse into his frustration when he finds out that his namesake almost fits the definition of a 'loser'; and we don't see the delightful moment when the adolescent Gogol first introduces himself to a girl by his 'good name', which infuses in him a curious sense of courage to experience his first kiss. The beauty, however, is that though Mira Nair had to omit a lot of events from the book and change a few, she has brilliantly captured the spirit of the book, thereby making her version as heart warming as the book.
Scriptwriters Sooni Taraporewala and Mira Nair deserve the credit for writing a screenplay that falls into that so-very-rare category of adaptations that do complete justice to the original book. I would go a step further and declare that the film is slightly better than the book. If the book was primarily about Gogol, the film is about the Ganguli family. One gets so involved in the trials and tribulations of the Ganguli family that one doesn't mind the length of the film. In fact, one almost wishes that the film could go on a bit more so that we could see what happens next in Gogols' life, or Ashima's or Sonia's...
Yes, it wasn't possible for Mira or Sooni to capture the entire book on film. So you do have some things that are omitted, or presented cursorily in the film. In one of the scenes early on in the film, Ashima is shown preparing a snack by mixing some peanuts, salt and chilly powder with rice crispies. It's an interesting scene, but we miss an important aspect that what she is preparing is "a humble approximation of the snack sold by pennies on Calcutta sidewalks..." i.e. Jhaalmuri. The line in quotes is from the book. How does one translate that on screen?
And yes, there are also some minor changes. One that works wonderfully is the scene where Gogol gets his head shaved off after his father's death. The barber dances to rap music while shaving Gogol's hair. This accentuates the theme of culture clash that runs all though the film. For the barber it's a sort of fashion statement, whereas for Gogol it's a life changing moment - "his atonement". In the book, Gogol doesn't shave his head. The other significant change is the setting of the film itself - changed from Boston to New York for purely cinematic reason. New York's Queensboro bridge, when contrasted with Kolkata's Howrah bridge, symbolizes Ashima's quest for settlement in a foreign land.
As Mira has herself admitted, this is her most personal film. And that, in my opinion, makes this her most accomplished film yet. Since she could herself relate to the story and the characters of the book, she has successfully captured the essence of the book on film. Also, she has been able to lend some extremely fine directorial touches by adding the scenes with small elements that do not necessarily appear in the book but add more weight to the depiction of cultural differences. For example, the uncomfortable twitch that glides through Ashima's face when Gogol's girlfriend, Maxine, addresses her by her first name. Or when during Ashoke's eleventh day mourning ceremony, Maxine dressed in black stands in stark contrast amidst all other mourners who are dressed in white.
What makes The Namesake work is not only the script or Mira Nair's warm direction, but also the strong performances by the main actors. Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguly gets under the skin of his character and it's difficult to imagine that he's not a Bengali, so perfect is his accent and body language. Tabu struggles a bit with the Bengali accent, but her knock-out performance more than makes up for it. In my opinion, it's a truly Oscar-worthy performance. Watch her in the scene where she finds out about her husband's death - absolutely heartbreaking!! Kal Penn as Gogol is a revelation. So far one has only seen him in some goofy, eminently forgettable role in utterly forgettable comic films. This is the film that gives him an opportunity to show his dramatic side, and that side, mind you, looks quite promising.
What I found most interesting was the point the book (and also the film) alludes to quite subtly: that cultural affinity is not enough for a relationship to work. Gogol marriage to Moushumi - a Bengali - collapses, while his sister Sonia finds an almost perfect partner in Ben - a half-Jewish, half-Chinese. This by itself can be the theme for a whole new book and a film. Will Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair oblige?
P.S: How can I resist from my usual nit-picking? In the scene at the Kolkata railway station in 1974, a hoarding of IndusInd Bank sneaks into the frame from behind the luggage on the coolie's head. Isn't it true that IndusInd Bank started exactly two decades later in 1994?