Namesake: Interview with Director Mira Nair

“I wanted to return to making a small-scale, intimate and mobile film, one which is extraordinarily close to my own reality as a South Asian person living in America today. Jhumpa Lahiri, the great Pulitzer-prize winning writer of Interpreter Of Maladies, has written precisely such a tale in her debut novel, The Namesake, which is this film. It encompasses, in a deep humane way, the tale of millions of us who have left one home for another, who have known what it is to combine the old ways with the new world, who have left the shadow of our parents to find ourselves for the first time.

I long to see my own people through my camera, one that will move fluidly between New York and Calcutta. The stellar cast includes Kal Penn (HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, SUPERMAN RETURNS) as Gogol, Tabu (MAQBOOL) as Ashima, Irrfan Khan (THE WARRIOR, MAQBOOL) as Ashoke, Zuleikha Robinson (HIDALGO, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE) as Moushumi and Jacinda Barrett (THE LAST KISS, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS) as Gogol’s American lover, Maxine.

The look of this film is more photographic than fluid, more PARIS, TEXAS than MONSOON WEDDING. I wanted to film a dusky Bengali beauty against a Mark Rothko painting in a stark Manhattan space. I wanted to see her languorously climb the stairs to her lover’s tenement, preparing herself for her first betrayal. I wanted to see an Indian baby’s shock of black hair in a sea of bald white ones. I hoped to capture on film the moment we unexpectedly become adult, the strangeness of burying a parent in a foreign land that has now become home.

Using Nitin Sawhney’s score and an eclectic mix of music ranging from Tagore’s classic Rabindra Sangeet to 60’s protest songs to contemporary hip-hop mixed with Indian pop, THE NAMESAKE reflects the current new wave of Asian Cool making its impact in America. I made this classic, poignant story with hot, meditative strokes – capturing the gothic bustle of old Bengal against the pulsating new look of young, cool desi (native South Asian) power in New York City.”

Story Hits Home

A major international bestseller and chosen by The New York Times, USA Today and Entertainment Weekly among many others as one of the Best Books of the Year, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake transports readers deep into the lives of an unforgettable immigrant American family. Having grown up in Rhode Island as an Indian-American herself, Lahiri wrote from the heart about a subject she knows from the inside out.

As with her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s debut novel was celebrated for illuminating themes of identity, belonging, becoming an American, as well as death, marriage and family love, that struck a chord with people from all backgrounds and all around the world. Most of all, The Namesake was lauded as a moving portrait of how one generation’s sacrifices lead to the triumphs and opportunities of the next.

“Gabriel Byrne had raved to me about the novel The Namesake while I was dubbing for VANITY FAIR, which was a remarkable coincidence since I was already reading the novel at the time,” says Nair. She was struck speechless by the novel’s in part because the story seemed to so closely reflect her own experience. “Here was the story of a young girl who traveled from Calcutta and wound up in New York City, which is almost precisely the same road I traveled,” notes the director. “I thought it was a deeply human story about the millions of us in America who have left one home for another and learned what it truly means to combine the old with the new.”

Nair’s films have often crossed cultures. She burst into the filmmaking world with SALAAM BOMBAY!, an extraordinarily powerful tale of street children trying to survive in the slums of Bombay. She then radically switched gears and headed to the southern United States to direct the indie romantic comedy MISSISSIPI MASALA, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhoury. Since then her films have leapt from one compelling territory to the next: from the 16th Century India-set romance KAMA SUTRA to the Golden-Globe winning HBO telefilm HYSTERICAL BLINDESS set in 1980s New Jersey; and, more recently, from the evocative tale of a cross-cultural marriage ceremony, MONSOON WEDDING, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, to her sumptuous screen version of the classic VANITY FAIR, starring Oscar- winner Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.

Most Personal Film

Having just faced the death of a loved one herself, Nair felt a profound connection with the story of Lahiri’s novel. Nair explains: “I think out of all my films, THE NAMESAKE is probably the most personal. When I read Jhumpa’s book it was like I had just met a person who completely understood my grief, who knew the cocoon I was in and everything I was experiencing and I told myself that I must buy the rights immediately.”

Nair was also attracted to a unique chance to combine cinematic portraits of her two favorite cities on opposite sides of the globe: New York and Calcutta. “I saw an opportunity to unite these two equally exciting worlds that I know and love and have lived in all my life,” she says. “I also wanted to capture visually the dizzying feeling of being an immigrant where you might physically be in one particular space yet you feel like you are someplace else in your soul.”

Nair’s long-time producing partner, Lydia Dean Pilcher felt right away that The Namesake was a perfect match for the director’s next project. “It was obviously a piece that really spoke to Mira, very deeply and in a personal way,” says Pilcher. “This was clear even in the urgency she felt to make this project happen right away. It was great material for her, because Mira has such a rare ability to take a very specific story and open it up into a universal story that everyone can relate to and take something from.”

Interviewing Jhumpa Lahiri

To begin, Nair interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri at length, and even visited her family members to get a keener and more intimate sense of the characters, their background and the pressures they feel as they attempt to maneuver through two different worlds. Lahiri found herself won over by Nair’s approach. “I don’t think I would have been interested in making the movie if it were for any other director,” she states. “But I have so much admiration for Mira and the journey she’s made as a filmmaker in this country, bringing out the Indian experience in such a fresh and innovative way. I really see her as a pioneer. She’s so passionate that she swept me and my entire family along in this film!”

In approaching THE NAMESAKE, Nair wanted to be as faithful to Lahiri’s story as a screenplay structure would allow. Her only major change to the characters was giving Ashima the background of a singer so that she could integrate the beauty and emotion of the Indian music she loves so much into the story. Nair next brought in her long-time friend and collaborator, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, with whom she had studied at Harvard and previously collaborated on SALAAM BOMBAY! and MISSISSIPI MASALA, to tackle the adaptation.

Adapting the Book

Taraporevela had her work cut out for her, but found ingenious ways to turn Lahiri’s subtle prose into imagery and drama. “Sooni and I exchanged a lot of notes back and forth,” explains Nair of their process. “For me, it is absolutely essential that any film I make has both tears and laughter so we used every opportunity available to expand on the more humorous and poignant scenes in the book.”

“I really didn’t believe that my book could be translated into film,” she admits. “There’s so much description and summary–but Mira and Sooni had read the book so carefully they were able to coax out the dialogue and action that is implicit. I could never have done this as the writer of the novel, but I thought what they did worked remarkably well.”

Gogol’s Character

At the heart of The Namesake’s story is the character of Gogol, a young American born to Bengali parents and burdened with the name of a Russian author. Gogol’s character must search for an identity to hold onto inside all this cultural confusion. On the page, Gogol is rebellious, funny, smart and definitely American in his tastes and outlook, so the filmmakers set out on a search for an American actor of Indian descent who could pull off that mixture on screen. They found their match in Kal Penn, a New Jersey native who first came to the fore in such comedies as VAN WILDER and HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, and most recently starred with Ashton Kutcher in A LOT LIKE LOVE and in SUPERMAN RETURNS.

Coincidentally, Penn had originally been inspired to become an actor after seeing Mira Nair’s MISSISSIPPI MASALA as a young kid, which allowed him for the first time to believe it was possible for a boy with an Indian face to grow up to star in movies.

Although he had yet to tackle a major leading role as intense or dramatic as Gogol, the filmmakers were immediately won over by Kal. Recalls Lydia Pilcher: “Mira had initially considered some actors out of Bombay but as we progressed in the casting process, it became clear that finding an American to play Gogol was of paramount importance. Kal became the perfect person because he not only is an amazing actor, but he also understood the character in the most deeply felt way. It seemed like destiny to find him.”

Nair comments: “Kal just moved me, frankly. He was so honest and so cute and he was able to capture Gogol’s angst, Gogol’s awkwardness and also Gogol’s distinctive coming of age. It’s a role very close to Kal’s heart because he also sees it as being about his family and where he comes from. There was a genuine sense right from the start that he owned the role and he took it very, very seriously.”

Kal faced a particularly intricate journey as Gogol’s moving from a teen playing air guitar in his bedroom to a young adult experiencing the vicissitudes of love, loss and marriage. He had read the novel even before he found out about the film and had a very emotional reaction to it. “It provoked a lot of different responses from me, from laughter to tears,” he says. “I immediately knew it was something very unique.”

When he found he might have the opportunity to play Gogol, the lure was irresistible. “I saw Gogol as my Holden Caulfield,” Kal explains. “I felt like this was my one shot at the kind of part that would really push me as an actor. And although he’s quite different from me in a lot of ways, Gogol’s internal struggles to find his true identity spoke to me, very deeply and very immediately.”

Kal was especially drawn to the idea of adding a whole new layer to the classic American coming-of-age story, this time as seen through the eyes of a first-generation immigrant. “I consider myself to be very American but I also think stories of immigrants really define the American experience,” he says. “One of the things I really like about this story is that it dispels the myth that being a young American looks a particular way or has a particular tradition. I think it brings us back to the core idea of the American experience, which are all these beautiful shared stories of people coming here from all around the world full of hope and promise.”

Another new experience for Kal was seeing the Taj Mahal, the astounding Indian landmark where Gogol makes an important decision about his future direction. “It was apparently at the Taj Mahal as a very young child but I can’t remember it so this was really my first time seeing it. To shoot a film like this at one of the great wonders of the world was mind-blowing,” he says. “The magnitude of its beauty was indescribable.”

Also at the heart of Gogol’s journey to adulthood are two very different love affairs, first with a rich American girl, played by Jacinda Barrett, who invites Gogol into her easy-going family; and then with a sexy, intellectual, fiery Bengali portrayed by Zuleikha Robinson who complicates his life even further. This was also exciting territory for Kal Penn.

“This was a great chance to work with two remarkably talented, extremely beautiful women,” Kal sums up. “It was also wonderful because Mira allowed us to really explore their two different styles of relationship in a very organic way. I felt that I was able to establish a lot of non-verbal chemistry with both Jacinda and Zuleikha, and that becomes a big part of Gogol figuring out his identity.”