Mira Nair's sprawling, engrossing saga "The Namesake," like the acclaimed Jhumpa Lahiri novel on which it's based, spans three decades and two generations, traveling from the 1970s to the present, from Calcutta to New York and back again, immersing us in the immigrant lives of the Ganguli family. There is enough material in this story to fill a mini-series. Indeed, there are times when you wish the movie were a mini-series. This is meant both as a tribute, for the Ganguli family is so engaging you'd be happy spending much more time with them, and an acknowledgment that a tale this expansive doesn't always fit comfortably within the constraints of a feature-length frame.
Early on, "The Namesake" transports us from a humid, crowded, colorful Calcutta living room—where young Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) meets his bride-to-be, Ashima (Tabu)—to a bare, wintry New York apartment where the couple, who barely know each other, begin their new life in America. The transition is a visceral and visual shock: we feel in our bones the deracination and loneliness of the immigrant facing a world from which all familiar signposts have been removed. Confronted for the first time with a box of Rice Krispies, Ashima garnishes the contents with peanuts and onions and spices: east meets west in a bowl of cereal, a delicious little symbol of both her adaptive instincts and the struggles she will face balancing tradition and assimilation.
Ashima and Ashoke's arranged marriage slowly and subtly turns into a love match, though the terms of endearment are rarely spoken—that would not be the Bengali way. And soon their first child is born: a son who is given the name Gogol, after the Russian writer whose book played a life-changing role in Ashoke's life. It's a name that the boy, as he turns into a moody, depressed, pot-smoking American teenager, finds a burden and a puzzlement. And when Gogol (Kal Penn) grows out of his awkward phase, moving on to Yale and a career as an architect in Manhattan, he abandons it for his formal name, Nikhil. To his girlfriend at the time—a patrician blonde named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), whose parents have a tastefully luxurious weekend home in Oyster Bay—he's Nicky. (Lahiri's novel wasn't called "The Namesake" for nothing.)
Gogol's struggle to find his identity as a man suspended between two cultures is obviously one near and dear to Nair's heart, and she navigates the journey with swift, confident, witty strokes, comfortable with both the Bengali traditions of Ashima and Ashoke and the hip Manhattan world to which Gogol aspires. If Maxine comes across as little more than a thin WASP stereotype, the next woman in Gogol's life is much more fascinating: the sophisticated Bengali beauty Moushima (Zuleikha Robinson), a Francophile writer who shares his urge to throw off the chains of tradition.
Gogol's constantly shifting sense of himself forms the seriocomic thematic center of the movie, but Ashima's journey is its emotional heart. In an excellent cast, Tabu's lovely performance, diffident but luminous, stands out. Screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote Nair's excellent "Salaam Bombay," about India's street children, and the interracial love story "Mississippi Masala," does a sturdy job capturing the essence, and the appeal, of Lahiri's novel. But there are a few clunky moments when you feel she's compressed too much into one scene, and believability is sacrificed to plot advancement. (The dissolution of Gogol's marriage, played out at a train station, is clumsily abrupt.)
Yet it's easy to forgive the sketchy patches in the face of such a generous and likable family saga. "The Namesake" illuminates the immigrant experience in ways that feel at once exotic and deeply familiar. It succeeds in making us feel that the Gangulis' story is our own: who, at some point in life, has not felt like a stranger in a strange land?