March 9, 2023
“My grandfather always said this is what books are for: to travel without moving an inch,” a young Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) tells his fellow, talkative train passenger, Mr. Ghosh (Jagannath Guha). It is the 1970s. For Mr. Ghosh, who has just returned from London after living there for two years, taking a train from Calcutta to Jamshedpur is not seeing the world. The world is out yonder, across the seas, in places like America and England. But Ashoke is not interested in Mr. Ghosh’s words. He’s too engrossed in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.”
Only a few minutes later, Ashoke’s entire world is upended. A train derailment leaves several ribs broken and puts screws in his hips and legs. He lives at home for a year, healing, relying on others to take care of him. Ashoke thanks Gogol for saving his life, for it is a crumpled piece of the story that allows rescuers to find him. He begins to wonder if there is wisdom in Mr. Ghosh’s words. So he applies to a graduate program, winning a full ride, and leaves for America.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake (2003) explores the friction between what we are born with — a name, a culture, and parents we do not choose — and what we make of it. Mira Nair’s wondrous film, which came out 16 years ago, on March 9, 2007, in the U.S. and is based on the book, explores this very rift with the rich visuals and fine casting Nair has come to be known for. In the novel, it may seem, according to Western constructs, that Gogol, Ashoke’s son, is our protagonist. But the movie reminds us that the main character of the story really isn’t Gogol at all.