Identity is fickle, ever-changing, and ever-expanding. It takes several shapes and forms along our life and keeps surprising us with its set of revelations. However, it contains certain elements that remain constant. They become inseparable parts of your identity. And no matter how you wish to get past them, they will stick with you, no matter what. You may go through an unnerving internal battle. You may ask yourself – Who am I? Which place do I belong to? What is my identity and how does the connection to a place or a person impact it? What do I call my home? Where do I actually belong?
Something, that an immigrated person would likely contemplate over at least once in their life. A person living away from their homeland would have a mixed bag of joys and resentments for both the places that they try to connect themselves with. Such is the conflict in The Namesake, which keeps tangling and intermingling itself in its own beguiling, bittersweet chain. A theme that has been explored in much of the written texts of Jhumpa Lahiri, this tale also introduces the warm elements that speak about the bonds, struggles, and sacrifices of the individuals in an immigrant family.
A person born in Bengal moves all the way to the other side of the world, uproots his previous life to create another in a land alien to him until then. The thought can be both scary and liberating at the same time. However, for this man in his young adulthood, the opportunities seem limitless. Every day seems like a blessing to him for having gone through the unsurmountable trauma of surviving a near-death incident.
They say books give you the ability to travel without moving an inch. Young Ashoke Ganguli finds the calling to not just make do with his imagination, but to explore the world in reality. Played by Irrfan, we meet an introverted, affable man going through the different stages of his life. From being filled with an abundance of curiosity about the world to actually experiencing it in his real life, his journey is deeply resonating.
Ashoke moves to New York, marries Ashima after having settled himself. They both learn about one another and learn to live with one another in this foreign land. Their memories from this point forward comprise not their homeland but this country with their own set of customs. Due to cultural dissonance, a connection is hard to navigate in the first place. The alienness of the land in itself forms a bond between them. Both of them form their equations on how to connect with strangers. When their children arrive in the world, they form another set of equations and keep updating them with their changing behavioural patterns.
Yet no matter what, a yearning for connection is at the core of The Namesake. This gives a bittersweet edge to this tale about familial bonds. Whether it is the emotional distance or physical, we feel a certain kinship towards these characters. Their longing becomes ours. To make us experience their joys and sorrows on a deeper level, the performances play a significant part. Tabu is impeccable as the matriarch of the family so is Kal Penn in his impressive turn in the role of Gogol Ganguli.
What always leaves me teary-eyed is the impact that Irrfan creates, which makes his presence felt even when we don't see him on the screen. As the bespectacled Ashoke Ganguli, he becomes a quintessential father figure and exudes warmth and compassion. His smile still makes me shiver. It becomes more than just a choice of expression with the layers of depth behind it. Sitting in the house of his prospective in-laws, listening to a remark made by Tabu's character, Irrfan's smile has an innocent charm. He smiles not just to convey approval but a certain sense of assurance – that their bond would prevail with the presence of such humour.
Years later, while standing on the seaside along with young Gogol, he looks at the wide expanse and smiles in the feeling of amusement that they share at the moment. It creates a tender moment of connection between the father and the child that is hard not to be smitten by. When he speaks with Gogol in his late teens, standing beside his room, telling him about his namesake from Russian literature, his smile becomes much more than just an indication of pleasure. It uncovers an understanding of growth, that his son hasn't gone through which is required in order to look at things from a perspective beyond his own. The words he doesn't say create just as much devastating impact.
There is so much to unpeel, so much to unravel from Irrfan's performance and his silences and the tiniest gestures. The taciturn figure of Ashoke becomes highly evocative due to him. It distances itself from the cliches of showcasing kinship and makes his performance eternal in the eyes of the viewers. His ability to explain chapters worth of the immigrant experience through his momentary presence is what makes his character eternal. No matter how hard you try, you can't let go of the memories from his performance.