Review: Two names and no unified self

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By Kelly LeVan

“The Namesake,” screening this week at UNM-LA as part of the Film Society’s lineup, tells the story of two generations, one Indian and one Indian American.

In the first, after an arranged marriage, a Bengali woman travels to New York City to live with her new husband. She knows next to nothing about him, and truly nothing about America. It feels dirty and plain to her, utterly lacking in India’s bright colors and sensual beauty.

Her husband studies all the time, leaving her alone to wallow in their barren apartment. But soon, small gestures begin to accumulate. She grows fond of her husband. It makes all the difference. This is not a story denigrating arranged marriages. Theirs works.

Their son, whom they give birth to and raise entirely in the United States, has far more trouble with love than his parents ever did. But his name gives him the most grief: Gogol, after a writer to whom his father feels particularly attached. He has another name as well, his formal or “good” name, Nikhil.

At different points in his life, one name or the other appeals to him more. Overall, though, he seems caught between the two – one Indian, one Russian; one passed down through his family, the other canonized by literature; one childish, at least in sound, while the other could be grown up, could be American when shortened to Nick or Nicky.

He wants to choose a definition for himself, and he feels trapped in the constructs of his names, everything they represent. This is the story of a man who needs to leave symbolism behind.

The name should fit the man, and not the other way around.

Kal Penn is excellent as the adult Gogol, endowing his character both the grace and dignity he barely knows he has.

“The Namesake” (2006), rated PG-13 and running 122 minutes, will screen at 7 p.m. in the Lecture Hall at the UNM-LA Student Center. Admission is $5 ($3 with UNM-LA ID).

Los Alamos Film Society and UNM-LA collaborate to present films with original points of view that did not receive wide theatrical distribution. Los Alamos Film Society is a program of the Los Alamos Arts Council.