Q&A: 'Namesake' Director on Cross-Cultural Movies

“The Namesake,” a film directed by Mira Nair (of “Salaam Bombay” and “Monsoon Wedding” fame) opens this week in theaters across the country. Based on the best seller of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the story of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu, who doesn’t use a last name), a young Indian couple who move from Calcutta to New York in search of the American dream, and their son Gogol (Kal Penn), the title character. Spanning 30 years, it is both a love story and a coming-of-age saga: the parents juggle old-country values with life in a new world, while the son finds his American identity without losing his heritage. Last week, Nair sat down to discuss the making of “The Namesake” with NEWSWEEK’s Vibhuti Patel. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What’s “The Namesake” about?
Mira Nair:
It’s about mothers and sons. I have a teenage son so I bring life experience to it. But what propelled me to make this film was grief—losing a parent in a country that is not fully home, experiencing death for the first time.

It’s also about home. Where is home for you? You have homes in Delhi, New York, Africa …
It’s a privilege to have the luxury of moving between places. My home is where my family are. I’ve made our homes living, breathing spaces to seek refuge in. We live in Manhattan. The day my son finishes school, we go to Kampala [Uganda] for three months. Inevitably, my films and family take me to India every year. In the beginning, it was confusing to leave one place for another: when I started using that confusion in my films, life became clearer. Now I don’t hanker for what I don’t have. I’m beginning to live fully in every place.

What was your vision for this film?
I wanted to make a deep exquisite adult love story. The story of Gogol’s parents is one I haven’t seen often. It’s about stillness, about how you share a cup of tea on a kitchen table, how you look at each other, what that companionship and tapestry of shared history means. It’s not the roses, diamonds, Hallmark cards and the “I love you”s of this culture of the young. The film’s two pillars are this adult love story and Gogol’s coming of age. I live in three generations, even in Manhattan—it’s been an enormous anchor in my life to have my in-laws live with us. America has deprived itself of the wisdom of the old. We send them away.

How real is your depiction of the world of Indian-Americans?
When I moved to New York in 1979, people barely knew India. It was a terribly lonely time. Now I click on the Internet and see South Asian playwrights, reading groups, film festivals—a whole infrastructure of creative cultural expression. Jhumpa Lahiri’s world—and mine—is cosmopolitan: we’re engaged with the arts, with college networks, the protest scene. Through Gogol, the film conjures up both the Calcutta that I’d loved in the '70s and today’s Manhattan with its music, fashion, people who look like us everywhere—in bars, on streets.

So, the film spans two cities?

Calcutta is a special city for me. I grew up in a town 300 miles south of it and spent summers in the city where I discovered so much of what I later became: it’s where I found political street theater, saw my first film, met the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. At 18, I came to Cambridge, Mass., where “The Namesake” begins. Then, I moved to New York. So this film is set in the two cities where I learned to grow up and “see.” I filmed the two like they were one because I believe that Calcutta and Manhattan have a great synergy. That became the weaving motif: to give audiences a feeling of what it’s like to live between two worlds, to not know where we are sometimes—New York or Calcutta—because that’s what it’s like for people like us.

Surprisingly, even the Bollywood stars deliver subtle and quiet performances.
The amazing thing about Bollywood actors is that Tabu, for example, has done more than 100 films. You give her a song and in two hours she’s lip-synching it to classical Indian music, which is totally improvised, where breath must be taken only at certain places—it’s really technical stuff. We wrote the songs at the last minute, but she’s so experienced she entered right into it. They work so much in Bollywood that the craft is being honed all the time. Besides, these are extraordinary actors. They’ve not had their authenticity pummeled out of them by that system.

The film is beautifully composed with frames featuring the twin bridges in Calcutta and Manhattan. With paintings on the wall, music in the background, you create a rich universe that seems to be inspired by photographs.
Every film is an opportunity to have a unique style. The swirling, hand-held camera of “Monsoon Wedding” was not right for this subject. Here, I wanted an austere photographic style—I’ve been influenced by contemporary photographers. I worked with different film stocks to evoke memory and mood emotionally. Since this film is about movement—airports, crossings, bridges, traffic, trains—I studied how the airport becomes a citadel where immigrants negotiate births, deaths, passages. We filmed airports with layers of reflection. For every film, I prepare a visual binder; for this one, I had a series of images which became leaping-off points. I shared Bengali films with the actors so the early years could have the sweetness of a Ray film of that time. For the Manhattan scenes, I wanted the heat and pulse of the confidence of being a South Asian here, now. The story gave me a banquet of 30 years. So yes, the frame is a great high.