Indian-born director Mira Nair bounces back from her misguided take on Thackeray's Vanity Fair with a project better suited to her unique point of view: a funny and touching adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about two generations of Bengali-Americans attempting to reconcile the world of their collective past with that of their individual futures.
Yonkers, New York, 1977: Young bride Ashima (Bollywood superstar Tabu) arrives from Calcutta with Ashoke (Irfan Kahn), her new husband by arranged marriage. Ashoke seems to be a nice enough fellow — an intellectual enamored of Russian literature who's been studying fiber optics at a New York City university for the past two years — but he's a virtual stranger, and Ashima is desperately homesick. Alone in a cold and strange city, Ashima pines for Calcutta and the company of her parents and close-knit extended family. As the months pass, however, Ashima grows close to Ashoke and soon gives birth to their first child, a boy. Honoring family tradition, the new parents await a letter from Ashima's grandmother indicating her choice for the baby's "good name" by which he'll be known to the outside world. The letter, however, never arrives, so the baby's unusual pet name, "Gogol," after Russian writer Nicolai Gogol, whose stories Ashoke believes once saved his life, winds up on the birth certificate. Not knowing the reason why his father would saddle him with such a bizarre moniker — his younger sister's perfectly normal name is Sonia — Gogol grows up in the leafy suburb of Nyack, New Jersey, hating the sound of "Gogol." To a teenager anxious to become his own man, it represents everything that keeps his parents rooted in the Bengali-American community from which they rarely stray and which pulls them all back to Calcutta for extended, months-long vacations. When he learns that his namesake was a depressive hypochondriac who eventually starved himself to death at the age of 45, Gogol's determination to change his "pet name" to the "good name" his parents eventually chose — "Nikhil," again in honor of Gogol — grows even stronger. But after attempting to move away and into the lives of his wealthy, waspy girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and her parents (Glenne Headly, Daniel Gerroll), "Nikhil" discovers that changing his name and escaping all it represents are two very different things.
Best known as a comic actor from his roles in HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE and National Lampoon's VAN WILDER movies, Penn acquits himself respectably enough in what's essentially a dramatic role. But the film belongs entirely to the radiant Tabu. Her remarkable performance, which takes Ashima from a homesick teenager to a strong, middle-aged woman determined to find a kind of freedom on her own terms, is light-years away from the comic caricatures of conservative elders one finds in films like BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, and helps the film itself avoid becoming yet another story of the stereotypical ABCD — "American Born Confused Desi." With an understated color palette refreshingly free of the visual extravagance that usually accompanies South Asian-themed films, Nair draws subtle parallels between the twin worlds of Calcutta and Nyack, and concentrates on both generations of the Ganguli family rather than the gap that lies between them. leave a comment --Ken Fox