|Kel Penn||Gogol Ganguli|
|Directed by||Mira Nair|
"We all came out of Gogol?s 'Overcoat'."
The titular namesake in this sweet, engaging story of ethnic identity crisis is Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn), the son of Indian immigrants in the United States. The Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who spent much of his life as an expatriate, was a favorite of the boy?s father Ashoke (Irfan Khan). As a young man, Ashoke was the sole survivor of a terrible train wreck in India. He had been reading Gogol?s classic ?The Overcoat? in a crowded railroad car, and chatting with a fellow passenger who advised him to ?pack a pillow and a blanket and see the world, you will never regret it.?
After the accident Ashoke takes that advice to heart, and moves to New York. He returns to India for an arranged marriage to Ashima (Bollywood beauty Tabu), an aspiring singer, and brings her back to Queens, to a charmless but functional apartment that boasts such wonders as gas twenty-four hours a day, and water you can drink from the tap. When their son is born, they are surprised to discover that American rules require a name on the birth certificate before the baby can be discharged from the hospital. Indian tradition dictates that the name will be chosen by the maternal grandmother, but it can often take months or years to decide. So they give the baby the ?pet name? (for family use) of Gogol; the ?good name? (for public consumption) can be added later.
The movie, directed by Mira Nair (?Monsoon Wedding?, ?Pride and Prejudice?) from Jhumpa Lahiri?s bestselling novel, covers a quarter century in the life of the Ganguli family, from the late 1970s to the present. Another child, Sonia (Sahira Nair) is born, they move to the suburbs, the children grow up as little Americans, and the parents find themselves living with one foot in their new culture and the other in the old. Ashoke makes the transition more easily, but then it is he who made the decision to transplant to this brave new world. On their first morning in the Queens apartment, before he goes to work, he offers to bring his bride a cup of tea in bed. ?That?s the way they do it here,? he says with a shy grin. But despite her resistance to assimilation, Ashima has also made the commitment. In our first glimpse of her, as she arrives home in Calcutta to meet the prospective bridegroom, she sees his American-made wingtips in the hall, and steps into them for a moment before going in.
Gogol and his sister grow up on hamburgers and rock ?n roll. When the family returns to India for the first time they are American teenagers who do not much dig the old world and its ways. ?I feel I have given birth to strangers,? Ashima laments. But a visit to the Taj Mahal inspires Gogol to direct his life?s course toward architecture.
He goes to Yale, where he adopts his belated ?good name,? Nikhil (shortened to Nick.) He moves to Manhattan, and falls in love with a WASP princess named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett). Her wealthy family welcomes him, his New York friends treat him without condescension; his life and his career are American, and still there is the Indian part of his identity that flows beneath the surface, that makes up a part of him he scarcely acknowledges but can?t ignore.
By and large, Nair plays fair with her American characters. Maxine is a privileged blonde beauty, and while she?s occasionally a little insensitive to Indian culture, she?s not quite a caricature. The senior Gangulis hew to a social life constructed almost exclusively around fellow Indian expatriates, but Ashima works at a suburban library where her best friend is an Anglo woman (the wonderful Brooke Smith). Ashima never becomes truly comfortable in the land where she has spent her adult life, but she wryly manages some American slang (?No big deal?) and accepts that her children are from a very different tradition than the one in which she grew up. They will marry for love, not by family arrangement. She and Ashoke have never directly acknowledged the feeling that has grown between them over the years of marriage (?You want me to say ?I love you,? like the Americans?? she teases him once.)
Of course, the apple often falls closer to the tree than it intends to. The old cultural clothes, like the overcoat in the Gogol story, are not always discarded as easily or as painlessly as their wearers would like. Here it takes the shock of a family tragedy to awaken in Gogol/Nick a fuller sense of who he is.
The acting is excellent, though Tabu and Khan age in a manner that recalls Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in ?Giant?, with white streaked in the hair and a weary slowness applied to the walk to indicate the passage from early twenties to late forties. Nair paints an affecting canvas, with plenty of color but a curious absence of sunlight. The movie squeezes a lot of story into its two-hour running time. It is a saga told in small pieces, a patchwork of short scenes that tumble after each other almost apologetically, as if they would love to linger a little longer, but there is too much to tell and only so much time in which to do it.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be