There is a world of emotion in Mira Nair's "The Namesake," adapted from the celebrated novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Spanning two generations, it's about the Gangulis – Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), his bride through an arranged marriage – who leave Calcutta for New York.
When their son is born, Ashoke names him Gogol after the famous Russian writer. It's a name that the boy, as he grows into manhood, will both renounce and embrace as he struggles to reconcile his Americanness with his Bengali roots.
The Gangulis' dislocation is sensitively rendered. Ashoke and Ashima barely know each other when they arrive, and the strangeness of their wintry surroundings makes everything seem more alien. Their longing for what they have left behind is balanced by their desire to succeed, and yet, when Gogol is born, Ashima wavers. "I don't want to raise him in this lonely country," she says. She understands that he will never be fully Indian in the way that she is.
As a teenager, Gogol (Kal Penn) rejects his name and dates a blue-blooded American (Jacinda Barrett). Yet he studies architecture at Yale because of an inspiring family trip to the Taj Mahal. Gogol is increasingly pulled apart by his warring roots, and only by attempting to reconcile them can he bring himself any peace.
In some ways, "The Namesake," which was written by Sooni Taraporevala, Nair's collaborator on "Salaam Bombay!" and "Mississippi Masala," is a classic immigrant saga about how profoundly disorienting it can be to live in two cultures. Gogol's repudiation of his parents is a sad and necessary rite. We wait for him to recognize the gifts they have given him.
Nair, who once made a documentary called "So Far From India" that predates this film, has a sharp eye for naturalistic detail, both in the Calcutta and the New York scenes. Her debt to the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, especially his "The World of Apu," is clear; her film is an act of gratitude to his humanistic tradition.
As is often the case with multigenerational movies, "The Namesake" takes in a lot of territory, and at times is too diffuse, too attenuated. But the actors are so expressive that they provide their own continuity. They transport us to a realm of pure feeling. Grade: A–
• Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, a scene of drug use, some disturbing images, and brief language.