Nobody can take away the pain a cinephile felt the day Irrfan passed away. We all waited with bated breath, praying for him to get better since the day of the diagnosis. We watched him be the superstar he is, time and again, with Angrezi Medium releasing just a month before he passed. There are many iconic roles Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan has portrayed in his illustrious 30-year career: Maqbool, Paan Singh Tomar, Saajan, Shaukat, Piscine and Rana. But nothing left a gaping hole in my heart the way Ashoke Ganguly did after watching Mira Nair's The Namesake.
Adapted from Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, the bildungsroman outlines the life of Nikhil "Gogol" Ganguly, as he grows up the child of Bengali immigrant parents in America. Tabu and Irrfan, playing, respectively, the parents Ashima and Ashoke, do incredible justice to getting into the skin of Indian diaspora parents as they navigate raising children that look like them, but act nothing like they do. Gogol himself is trying to get rid of a name that he has been ridiculed for growing up, in essence getting rid of an aspect of his identity, namely the Indian one. He feels no connection to his heritage, rather feeling it to be an imposition he bears on his shoulders, an intergenerational burden passed down to him. The film itself charts Gogol's relationships with his dual identity, his parents, his heritage and the place he chooses to take in the world.
But no performance lingers with as much of a dulcet, bittersweet tone as Irrfan's does. Ashoke, an unassuming, thoughtful college professor, is a man of few words; his soft, Bengali-accented English and gentle demeanour grows on the viewer – as if we have a choice. When he and Ashima left their beautiful Calcutta swiftly after getting married, they had to build their lives up from the barren emptiness of the frigid New York winters. Soon, their identities incorporated both halves of their existence: their jobs and neighbourhoods in suburban America, coupled with whatever aspects of their Bengali identity they could continue to carry with them.
Before going away on a teaching apprenticeship to Ohio, Ashoke tells Gogol the meaning of his name, the one he strived so hard to get rid of. But this film is more than just about how a person of American Indian descent battles to understand his cultural background and how he fits in as a son of immigrant parents. It's equally about the journey two Indians take to find and make a home wherever they are, in a country far away from the cultured lanes of Calcutta. Mira Nair's adaptation film was just a testament to how sometimes a film can do more justice to a story than the book it comes from itself.
To Ashoke, thank you for teaching this daughter of immigrant parents the struggles my parents must have faced when moving away from home. Studying The Namesake in school was a revelation to me, but living Ashoke's premature death in book and film made me realise that one day, I'll have to relive that passing. As a naïve 16-year-old, I prayed that day would be decades away, hoping at least then I would have the strength to face it.
Just like Ashoke, Irrfan left too early. I will always remember that you and I made a journey, Irrfan, where there was nowhere left to go. You'll always be Ashoke to me. Happy Birthday, Padma Shri Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan. Godspeed.