A man is lying on his stomach, on the floor of an apartment. Sitting next to him is a woman wearing a sari, the red and white bangles that signify wifehood for Bengali Hindus. She has sindoor in her hair, and the stain of red alta on her fingertips is a reminder that she’s newly married. This is Ashoke (Irrfan) and Ashima (Tabu). In the previous scene, they’ve had a gentle disagreement because Ashima made a mistake at the laundromat and ended up shrinking Ashoke’s clothes. Now, having realised his wife needs his help to be independent, Ashoke is teaching Ashima how to use the subway to get to the fish market on her own.
“What if I get lost?” Ashima asks, a hint of teasing in her voice.
Ashok doesn’t miss a beat. “You think I’d let that happen to you?”
Even though the focus of The Namesake is on Ashoke and Ashima’s son, Gogol (Kal Penn), one of the most poignant sections of director Mira Nair’s film is those that offer us a look into the older couple’s marriage. After living for two years in New York City, PhD student Ashoke returns to India to marry. His bride is Ashima, who is initially excited by the prospect of moving abroad. Once in New York, Ashima is quickly disillusioned. The city feels inhospitable with its freezing temperatures and strange locals. Also, she is entirely dependent upon Ashoke to navigate the city.
Power dynamics tend to shift in a marriage, and this is true for Ashoke and Ashima. While she may seem more reliant on him, Ashoke needs Ashima in other, less tangible ways. For example, when Ashoke has a nightmare about a train accident he’s survived, he wakes up in a traumatised daze and Ashima is the one who settles him down. “Come back to me,” she murmurs while taking him in her arms and cradling him with almost maternal authority. Soothed by the sound and feel of her, Ashoke calms down. His feelings of vulnerability and fear are counterbalanced by her steady calm.
In the see-saw of their marriage, the first moment when Ashoke and Ashima are truly equal is when they make love. The scene begins with Ashoke reaching for Ashima, who initially just watches Ashoke. However, here, she is no passive partner. She responds, touches him back and desire becomes the great equaliser. Here, both of them are vulnerable as well as powerful, their needs and rhythms matching with urgent, messy perfection. Nair also films the scene so that we see Ashoke and Ashima as parallels touching one another, rather than in a way that would suggest the standard power dynamic of the missionary position with the man on top.
In the scenes that show the early days of Ashoke and Ashima’s marriage, Nair’s camera stays at a close or medium distance to catch every flicker of emotion, from awkwardness to amusement, on Tabu’s face. It also suggests this is an intimate little world of the couple’s own. The walls — patterned with wallpaper that shows two sets of contrasting, coloured leaves coming together — are always visible, cocooning Ashima in the apartment. In contrast to the sharp, flat whiteness of the snow-blanketed city, their home is full of warm tones and Ashima’s clothes add vibrant colour to the bleak surroundings, mirroring how she enlivens Ashoke’s world. The outside world enters Ashima and Ashoke’s world only when Ashima becomes pregnant and is in a hospital room that looks out on a bridge which reminds her of the Howrah Bridge back in her hometown of Kolkata. In another shot, Ashima is seen sitting on the hospital bed and the city skyline can be seen in a hazy reflection on the room’s windows. Her world has opened up and both she and Ashoke have made a little space for themselves within the city that was once alien to them.