The Namesake; 300
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Early in the course of The Namesake, a young and beautiful Indian woman stands alone in a spare American kitchen, pondering the riddle of breakfast. She's just come from tropical Calcutta to the ice and snow of New York City with a new husband she barely knows, an ambitious young man who has lived in New York and works in fiber optics. She knows nothing about anything in this city. Warily, she examines a box of Rice Krispies, pours a helping into a bowl, sprinkles it with curry powder and munches a first spoonful of the dry mixture without pleasure. This immensely pleasurable film is anything but dry. It's a saga of the immigrant experience that captures the snap, crackle and pop of American life, along with the pounding pulse, emotional reticence, volcanic colors and cherished rituals of Indian culture.
The Namesake was adapted from the novel of the same name and directed by Mira Nair In her earlier film, Monsoon Wedding, Nair evoked the drama of an extended family by bringing its far-flung members together for a ceremony in New Delhi. This time her story is centrifugal, at least at the start. After an arranged marriage, a pair of almost perfect strangers, Ashoke Ganguli and his bride Ashima, fly off to the United States, where they struggle to put down roots, succeed beyond their hopes and raise an almost thoroughly American son -- the namesake of the title -- with the singular moniker of Gogol Ganguli.
Ashima is played by the Indian film star Tabu; her skill and tact are equal to her startling beauty, or vice versa. At the time of her Rice Krispies breakfast Ashima has no way of knowing if the bookish, bespectacled man she has married will be cool to her, cruel to her or simply detached from her as he carves out a career in his adopted land. But Ashoke is, in fact, a man of extraordinary kindness and tenderness. He's played by the Hindi actor Irrfan Khan with a brilliance that's all the more astonishing for being self-contained. In other hands this material might have been the stuff of soap opera. Here it feels improbably pristine.
The story of how a very Bengali couple's son came to be the namesake of a quintessentially Russian writer is the narrative that informs the family's life. The role of Gogol is crucial, then, and Kal Penn (from Harold and Kumar) fills it with a charming goofiness that eventually gives way to endearing manhood. Gogol's rejection of his heritage constitutes half of the classic template of immigrant sagas. The other half -- reclaiming his heritage when he's wise enough to do so -- brings him to appreciate the parents he's been blessed with. On that score we've been way ahead of him.
300 presents a dual clash of civilizations. An action adventure that pits thousands of Persians against 300 brave Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, it also pits millions of fans of brainless violence against a gallant band, or so I choose to think of us, who still expect movies to contain detectable traces of humanity. Like Sin City before it, 300 was adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller, and uses digital techniques, to fill the screen with striking images. Being a Spartan, the movie tells us, was about pride, pecs and abs. Being a Persian was about leering, body piercing and, particularly in the case of the bass-boosted Xerxes, bejeweled preening; his costume would be a stunner on any runway in the modern world.
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