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What does it mean to be an American family? In her most personal film to date, acclaimed director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding) brings to the screen a poignant and transporting version of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel. The Ganguli family moves from Calcutta to New York, evoking a lifelong balancing act to meld to a new world without forgetting the old. Though Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) long for their old life in India, they take great pride in the opportunities their sacrifices have afforded their children. Paradoxically, their son (Kal Penn) is torn between finding his own unique identity and holding on to his heritage. Co-starring Jacinda Barrett. Original music by Nitin Sawhney.

 The Namesake

If it weren’t for photography, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. Every film I make is fueled by photographs. Sometimes it is a particular image from a photographer, sometimes it is what I have learned by seeing the world through his or her eyes. Either way, photographs have always helped me crystallize the visual style of the film I’m about to make.

As I prepared to make The Namesake, I had an idea for a frame: an image of a dusky Bengali beauty against a Mark Rothko painting in a sleek Madison Avenue space. Then, looking through a book of photographs by Raghubir Singh from the 1980s, I came across a startling image of a red T-shirt drying on a flaking Calcutta ironwork railing, decaying Edwardian columns looming in the background. In its rich swath of color amid the layering of centuries, I realized that Rothko was alive and well in modern-day Calcutta. Raghubir’s photograph was among the first signs for me that The Namesake could be made in an austere photographic style. With the great cinematographer Fred Elmes by my side, we conceived each scene as a series of wide-angle shots, “democratic frames” within which the actors, not the camera, would move in a choreographed swirl.

The Namesake, for me, was inspired by grief. I had lost a beloved without warning, and as is our custom, we had to bury her the next day, in a bitterly cold field under jet-strewn skies near Newark Airport. This was our Ammy, who had spent her entire life in the red earth of East Africa, now being laid to rest under the icy glare of snow, very far from what she and we, her family, had known as home. In the weeks of mourning that followed, I found myself on a plane reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. I had bought the novel months before in our local neighborhood bookstore, The Labyrinth, where my family spends many a desultory Sunday afternoon.

Now the book became a comfort, a source of real solace as I tried making sense of the finality of loss. Jhumpa’s writing distilled the nature of grief, the loss of a parent in a country that is not fully home, taking readers through a world of crisscrossings achingly familiar to me. The Namesake was many of my worlds: the Calcutta I left behind as a teenager, the Cambridge where I went to college and the New York where I now live. Jhumpa’s New York is not the immigrant communities of Little India or Jackson Heights but the New York of lofts, Ivy League bonding, art galleries, political marches, book openings, country weekends in Maine with WASPy friends, a deeply cosmopolitan place with its own images and manners. This was the place I had lived in since 1978; this is the city where I learned how to see.

I had hovered at the edges of the photography world for years, looking at everything from the older masters like André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Eggleston to the younger New York photographers like Lois Conner, Mitch Epstein, Adam Bartos and Nan Goldin. Their visual rigor and devotion to the frame trained my eyes. This later became a large part of my enjoyment and practice as a film director.

Yet I never felt the pull to shoot a film in New York until I read Jhumpa’s beautiful story. William Thackeray writes in Vanity Fair, “The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” New York was my looking glass and in making The Namesake, I could show the world the ease and confidence of the new South Asian cool in the city, how the Desi demi-monde really lived here—a New York that rarely makes its way onto the screen. In her novel Jhumpa managed to tie this world seamlessly, and with incredible specificity and intimacy, to Calcutta. Not only to contemporary Kolkata, but also to the Calcutta of my own youth. I spent all my summers, from childhood through college, living with a favorite uncle on Cornfield Road, sleeping late, reading, playing cricket in the local maidan, and eventually discovering political street theater there. This was the seed of what later became filmmaking.

It was fitting to return to the city more than 30 years later, in part to pay homage to what I loved about Calcutta. This is a city where culture is worshiped and religion takes a back seat to communism, but also where the goddess Durga presides over every occasion, great and small. The moment I saw Raghu Rai’s stunning wide-angle photograph of two laborers carting an adorned Goddess Saraswati across a Calcutta flyover, he gave me the key to include her in The Namesake. Thus the goddess of music hovered over Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol in the film, appearing inexplicably every now and then to bless our tale.

Creative expression is the bread and butter of almost every Bengali, so in Calcutta nearly everybody has a double or triple life. When I was casting The Namesake, I attended a symposium of Tagore plays at the Rabindra Bhavan and noticed a particular actor. He turned out to be a successful lawyer who from 9:00 to 6:00 practiced labor law, then performed onstage until midnight. When I asked him how he managed, he said robustly, “It is my oxygen!”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt these two great cities of the world, New York and Calcutta, mirrored each other in specific ways. The massive steel of the Howrah Bridge, like an iconic sash across the Ganges, was echoed in the light grace of the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River outside my window. I scouted a hospital on Roosevelt Island and felt that it might easily have been a hospital in Calcutta. Ashima could give birth to Gogol here, I thought. She could look out of the window, and in the girders of the Queensboro Bridge, the shake and hum of traffic above and below, would lie the ghost of the Howrah. That is, after all, the state of being of many of us who live between worlds.

Below and above ground, both cities are stitched by rails: the tram tracks of Calcutta, the elevated trains of New York, the subways of both. When alerted by the clang and rattle of the Calcutta tram crossing the main thoroughfare of Chowringhee, I would look across the road to see five planes of faces and cars and bustling buses, eight planes of action crisscrossing each other kaleidoscopically. I could see directly through the tram’s windows on Rash Behari Avenue to the shops and the shoppers of Gol Park on the other side, creating wide picture window frames in the manner of Robert Frank’s classic photograph. Just like my mornings on the subway platforms of New York City, with passengers across the platform going in opposite directions, then, as each train came in to disgorge and pick up, wiping the slate clean like a screenwipe.

I would shoot these two cities as if they were one. The textures and graffiti, the salaam to both politics and art—these were the gods of both cities. In both you have the frayed and layered posters on the lampposts and walls, scaffoldings of steel in one, of bamboo in the other. Gradually I began to see that the film would be about movement and crossings. The bridges, the trains, the airplanes, the constant comings and goings of an immigrant, the neutered spaces of airports and suitcases, would be the threads of the film, uniting its tapestry, covering 30 years in the Ganguli family’s life between New York and Calcutta.

All this was in the novel in an understated way, but my film would be a visual realization of that state. The film would begin on a slightly stylized note, following Ashoke Ganguli’s trunk gliding through Howrah Station on a coolie’s head, the focus remaining on the suitcase as it made its journey into the train carrying Ashoke into his future in America. In Derry Moore’s elegiac portrait of the young princess of Burdwan standing in her wrought-iron balcony in late evening light, I saw the longing and stillness of his bride, Ashima, who stepped into her husband’s American-made shoes, leaving her web of family and friends behind her, irrevocably changing her life.

When shooting the scene in Kennedy Airport where Ashima sees Ashoke alive for the last time, I was guided by the master Garry Winogrand’s photographs in his book Arrivals and Departures to find secrets in the reflecting floors of airports, where human beings stand in endless queues linked in anonymity, like journeying lemmings. When shooting Tabu as Ashima in Kolkata, I posed her against the gleaming teak doors of Deb Bari on Amherst Street and only months later saw in the frame echoes of Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “The Daydream,” in which a young Mexican woman dreams, leaning against a similar stairwell. And sometimes the inspiration was unexpected: in Mitch Epstein’s untitled picture made in New York City, the strong graphic of a man on an elevator against a monochromatic red wall once again brought Rothko to mind and gave me the courage to use a core of strong color in New York suburbia.

The Namesake
was also my chance to return the tribute to the great Bengali filmmakers and artists who had nourished me for those 12 summers and beyond. In 1984, the moment I finished my first documentary, I took the reel under my arm, hauled a projector with the other, and climbed the wooden stairs to Satyajit Ray’s home on Bishop Lefroy Road to show him the film. I would walk into a scene that could well have been from one of his films: a soirée of great-looking Bengali literati in his study, one reading aloud a brilliant review of his work from Sight and Sound 15 years ago, as the bemused master listened, drawing all the time on a paper resting on his knees.

That was the first of many meetings with the great filmmaker. In distilling the love story between Ashoke and Ashima in The Namesake, it was the sweetness and charm of Apu’s love for his sudden bride, Aparna, in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) that I aspired to. One of my great regrets was not knowing the extraordinary Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, whose unabashed emotion and Soviet zeal kept me on course through my own shooting in his city. The luminosity of the great Bengali actresses of yore, Supriya Devi (Ashima’s grandmother in the film) and Madhabi Mukherjee; the deadly intellectual good looks of the bespectacled Niranjan Ray; the fire in the songs of Nazrul; the confident line and spare color of Jamini Roy—to each of these teachers I bowed in namaskar.

And thus the story possessed me, and the wonderful band of my filmmaking family began clearing the path to make the film happen. Then, as the lady shopkeeper in Kampala proclaims on her storefront sign, “In My Own Way, Ltd.,” I set out to make my first Bengali film in America.