December 12, 2007

DVD Review: The Namesake

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see The Namesake, a film based on the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri. I remember seeing the trailer and thinking that it looked really good. As good as it looked, that was not the primary reason that I was interested in seeing it, although a good looking trailer can be pretty convincing. What actually drew me to the film was one its stars, Kal Penn. To this point I had only seen Penn in comedies, such as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Still, Penn has considerable screen charisma and seemed to have talent that goes well beyond the goofy shtick that we have come accustomed to. This was an opportunity to see if he did have range and ability to carry a dramatic feature. I am happy to report that it worked on the big screen, and still holds up on the small one.

While I went in wanting to see a film featuring Penn at its center, that is not what we got. Instead, director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) gives us a film that follows an immigrant Indian family that is attempting to assimilate into a new culture while retaining their identity as Indians, while their children are clearly American first and Indian second. It is a story that brings together themes of assimilation and culture clash along a journey of self-discovery. To that end Kal Penn plays a major part in the story, but he is not the immediate focus.

The Namesake is much more than the story advertised in the trailer. The trailer tells the story of a son rebelling against his family, tradition, and his heritage, while his family struggles to come to grips with the alien culture around them. While this is true, it does not tell the whole story. This is so much more than the story of the son. This is a tale of epic scope on an intimate level. This is the story of an entire family from the dawn of their union through the trials and tribulations of becoming a genuine family and all of the problems, and joys, that come with it.

The film is not perfect, although in the big picture my complaints are not nearly enough to deter anyone from liking the film. The issues are with the flow, it tends to be a little choppy. The story spans over 25 years in the life of this family and to portray the passage of time is not an easy thing to do. It was likely done the best they could given the source, the result is very much like watching a book with chapter breaks and they felt a little awkward. It is a minor complaint, but a valid one.

Where The Namesake excels is with the screenplay, and even more importantly with the acting. The screenplay was written by Sooni Taraporevala and does a wonderful job of capturing the immigrant experience. As for the performances, the three primary actors did a wonderful job of portraying the varying points of view. In particular, Tabu as the family matriarch, Ashima, gives a moving a subtle performance that draws you in and never lets go. Then there is Irfan Khan, who has had a very good year, turns in strong work as Ashoke. Finally, the previously mentioned Kal Penn, who shows that he has the chops to stretch beyond the comedy and deliver a strong dramatic performance.

Audio/Video. The copy I have is a burned pre-release copy. This being the case, I cannot speak to how well the technical quality of this disk compares to the production copy you will find on the shelves. It didn't look all that bad, but I do not wish to mislead.

  • Commentary. Track features director Mira Nair. This is a very good track. Mira Nair has a lot of experience and information to offer throughout the runtime. Very easy to listen to with very little dead air.
  • Deleted Scenes. Three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mira Nair. None of them would have had a big impact on the film and are interesting only as having been made rather than being excised from the final film. (3 minutes)
  • The Anatomy of The Namesake: A Class at Columbia University's Graduate Film School. This is a very good non-traditional making of. There is set footage, but there is also much that takes place in a class setting. All aspects of the production are covered. (32 minutes)
  • Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Kal Penn. Interesting if brief interview with Penn. I think he is a good actor, better than he has been able to show yet, and this film demonstrates his potential. (3.5 minutes)
  • Kolkota Love Poem. This is rather nice, it is a visual poem dedicated to Calcutta.
  • Photography as Inspiration. This is an interesting look through still photographs that helped inspire Mira Nair's visual choices for the film. It shows a scene from the film along with the photograph that was a direct inspiration. (8 minutes)
  • Theatrical Trailer. The trailer is very good, although it does not really give you the best representation of the film, as the first third is primarily about Kal Penn's character's parents.

Bottomline. Pacing issues aside, this is a great story of self-discovery and the trials that an immigrant family goes through trying to fit into a new culture. Beautifully shot, well acted, and just a very good film. The DVD also has worthwhile extras, in particular the commentary and the film class featurette.



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