500 Movies #8: Would Smell Just as Sweet

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. 

8. The Namesake (2006) Mira Nair

“Books are for traveling without moving an inch.” So says the grandfather of Gogol/Nikhil, the young man who must deal with his double name and his double-cultural identity in  The Namesake. If books can take you places movies can too, and this film certainly does, whisking its audience off on an adventure of self-discovery, tracing the steps of a life. Taking us from the streets of Kolkata to the streets of New York the film paints a vast portrait of the life of someone who belongs to two worlds. It tells the story of Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn, surprisingly endearing in this serious role), the son of first generation Indian immigrants, starting from the train accident that convinced his father to leave India, even before his parents met, and moving later into Gogol’s adult life.

The film succeeds in painting a portrait of Gogol’s life, relating him to the audience but also relating his parents to the audience, and their old-fashioned Bengali ways. Almost as much as it is Gogol’s story it is also his parents’, Ashook and Ashima’s; it is the story of their love and the family it created. It is not a one-sided or one character film but rather much more multi-dimensional, grappling with its threads the way its characters grapple with their cultures.

Gogol’s story is moving, but that is not what makes the film significant. Rather it is the way that story is told. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, and even if you’ve never, it is clear that the film has its own distinctive adaptation as it is distinctly cinematic in the way it unfolds. That is the mark of a good adaptation, something that, though it comes from source material, it becomes its own piece of art. And they way Nair paints the cuts of the film onto each other you feel like you could frame it and hang it on your wall. The film is very much the essence of film: moving pictures. Each shot is meticulously composed and tells you all you really need to know. Whether it is the bright colors that cover the streets of Kolkata or the grim gray snows that cover the suburbs of Manhattan, every frame in the movie is doing its part to tell the story.

You get the sense that Nair wanted to make it a silent film, to tell the story in a way that the book could not have, entirely out of image. Long stretches of the film are silent, and the camera pans over whatever the characters see, be it the Taj Mahal or simply their own living room. The cinematography is beautiful, precise, and poignant; it is the crux that the film rests on. The way the images unfold across the screen it is almost like Nair is taking you through the Ganguli family album, slowly flipping page after page until a bigger picture starts to come together.

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