“The Namesake”: A Personal Experience

Sudipta Bhawmik
[Previously published in Anandasangbad]

On the setOn 7th of March 2007, I had the opportunity of watching Mira Nair’s latest film, The Namesake”. The film had officially premiered the earlier evening which unfortunately, I was not able to attend. However, the producers of the film were kind enough to arrange couple of seats for me for the special screening for the Museum of Moving Images which included a Q&A session with the director Mira Nair (and surprise guests Tabu and Irfan Khan).
Being a participant in the filming process (in a very limited way in the role of Subroto Mesho), I was especially curious to see the final result – the big picture as you may call it. At the end of the screening when Mira asked me how I liked the film, I was sort of speechless. I did answer something like “great” or “wonderful”, but that was only a gut reaction – I was still trying to figure out my feelings towards the film. I was not able to give Mira the right answer. I figured, maybe, if I try to jot down my thoughts, I’ll be able to come up with a better answer.

So how did I feel watching the film?
Have you ever, in a lonely rainy afternoon, sat down and leafed through the pages of your family photo album? An album that spans three generations, your parents, yourselves and your children, captured in those 4×6 frames? With each turn of page, you see the glimpses of your life that went past; you see how your image changed over the years. Fleeting memories hit you like a hail storm and you feel lost – for few moments. That’s exactly how I had felt watching “The Namesake”. The film is a family album, a photo album of the Ganguli’s, but you feel as if it is your own. The only difference is that the subjects in those photos are not still, they become alive, they talk, they move, they laugh, they cry – and you join them. And when you are done watching it, you just want to sit silently, hugging the album close to your heart with your eyes closed. You try to remember those pictures that were not captured by any camera on any film. Just as Ashoke tells his son Gogol (when he realizes that he has forgotten his camera to shoot the end of his journey) “We will just have to remember this…… all our life” – Mira’s film inspires us to remember our journey and “follow our bliss”.

Mira herself admitted that the style of this film was inspired by still photographs (by masters like Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Mich Epstein, Dayanita Singh) and it showed. I guess, to capture a period spanning three generations, this was the best form available to her. We jump from period to period, from city to city with extreme ease, just like turning a page of our album. We see the characters change, but not always how they change. But we have no trouble in filling the gaps, because it is our story. There are no surprises, no suspense, no thrill, no profound philosophy – only the solitude and quietness of a deeply felt sorrow and ….bliss.

The film starts as Ashoke’s story, then switches to become Ashima’s story and then again transforms to become Gogol’s story with no jitters, as if it is the natural progression. Not too many Hollywood filmmakers would dare to undertake such an unconventional screenplay structure. But Mira herself is unconventional. She pays homage to Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak through this film. She imbibed in this film the lyricism of Ray and the visual exuberance of Ghatak that is rare in this part of the world. Some of the scenes strongly remind you of Ray’s works like “Apur Sansar” or Ritwick’s “Meghe Dhaka Tara”. She even cast Supriya Choudhuri, the unforgettable Nita of “Meghe Dhaka Tara”, in a special role and made her utter the unforgettable line, “Embrace the new, but do not forget your past”. She shoots the two great cities of the world (Kolkata and New York) with the same sensitivity and care as did Ray in “Mahanagar” or “Jana Aranya” (kudos to Fred Elmes.)

The film is not free from imperfections, but let that not distract you in anyway. Sometimes you may feel that the time limit of two hours was too much of an imposition on a film of this kind. Some issues could have been explored a bit more, some characters developed some more. But I guess, some compromises need to be made anyway.

I am not sure what the verdict of the film Pundits of the world would be, or even what criticisms would the “argumentative Indians” (and Bengalees) bring to their tea (“adda”) table, but to me, “The Namesake” will be one of my dearest films to date.

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