Iíve just seen The Namesake, Mira Nairís adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiriís novel. For those who havenít read the book or seen the movie, this is the story of a young Bengali, Ashoke Ganguly, who leaves for America in the early Eighties with his wife, Ashima. He teaches engineering at a university, she remains the Bengali housewife in exile, they have two children, a boy and girl and the novel is centred on the boy, Gogol, named after Ashokeís favourite Russian writer. I had read the novel first, when it was published four years ago. The film follows the book closely, but there is a shift in narrative emphasis: the film is carried by the story of Ashoke and Ashima while the novelís action was more routed through the experience and sensibility of their son.
I liked both Namesakes very much, but several of my Bengali friends did not and their criticisms of the book and the film illustrate the different, even contradictory expectations readers and viewers have of realist fiction in its two mediums, the film and the novel. The criticism I heard from Bengali readers of the novel made two main points. The first one was that the telling of Ashoke and Ashimaís very Bengali lives was boringly ethnographic in its detail. This detail, they complained, might be of some interest to the non-Bengali American reader, but for a Bengali it was redundant and seemed to explain too much. The second criticism of the novel was related to the first but more damning: The Namesake was seen as an instance of a genre of American writing, the Immigrant Novel with an Indian accent and therefore not sufficiently novel. I remember a friend mentioning it in the same breath as Monica Aliís Brick Lane, a novel about the experience of a Bangladeshi woman in London, published around the same time as The Namesake, and predicting an epidemic of novels about dislocated desis, a rash of East-in-West stories.
If the criticism of the novel was that it was too anthropological (another way of saying that it achieved its effects by making taken-for-granted Bengaliness exotic for the Western reader), the criticism I heard of the film was the reverse: that its ethnography was poor, that it was a film about Bengalis that didnít really understand the natives. This led, so the critique went, to mistakes that made it impossible for the cultural insider (the Bengali) to take the film seriously. For example, the film has a Bengali wedding taking place with the sun shining outside. According to its critics, this clanger, coming as early in the movie as it does, torpedoes the film because in an immigrant story, reliable narrative realism is crucial and everyone knows that Bengalis get married at night. (The fact that the filmís director, Mira Nair, is the ultimate non-Bengali, i.e. a Punjabi, might have made Bengali viewers specially vigilant about the filmís authenticity.)
The second criticism of the film also sprang from the strict demands of mimetic realism: Ashoke and Ashimaís accents when they spoke English and Bengali werenít satisfactorily Bengali. This is not a criticism that a novel is likely to encounter. While there are some novels that go to great lengths to render dialect and accent accurately (The Bonfire of the Vanities actually spells them out), and some critics will go on about a writerís Ďearí, the average reader is unlikely to be so quickly put off by the Ďinauthenticityí of printed speech: film, by its very nature, tends to encourage literal-mindedness. Besides, Jhumpa Lahiri steps around the whole problem by minimizing speech in inverted commas. Conversations are described or reported, not dramatized. The scriptwriter and the director must have had to invent nearly all the dialogue because thereís very little in the book that can be lifted and used in a film.
Tabu, who plays Ashima, and Irrfan, who plays Ashoke, arenít Bengalis. The film has them speaking Bengali occasionally, but mostly they speak English as Bengalis might speak the language. Not being Bengali myself, I canít judge how persuasive their Bengali was, but Irrfan Khanís English seemed plausible enough. He sometimes sounded like a purabia, someone from the eastern edge of the Hindi belt, but on the whole he seemed to make a reasonable fist of being Bengali in English. I have prabashi or expatriate Bengali friends who sound rather less Bengali while speaking English than Irrfan did in this film.
Tabu, who is otherwise completely believable as an immigrant housewife half-oppressed by exile and half-fulfilled by her family, does have an accent problem. When she speaks English, she sounds conscious of the need to speak it in a Bengali way and she sometimes lapses into a generic Indian sing-song. Cumulatively, through the length of a film, this way of speaking English tends to infantilize her. Towards the end of the film, when she tells a gathering of family and friends that sheís decided to leave America and return to Calcutta, she makes a little speech that is brave and poignant and moving ó itís her best moment in the film ó and halfway through it, I realized that she had forgotten to Bengalify her accent.
Tabu would have been even better than she already is in the film if she had canned the Bengali business from the start. Most film audiences, like most novel readers, are generous when it comes to suspending disbelief. Iím convinced that Bengali movie-goers would have been happy to take Tabuís Bengaliness on trust. Itís only when actors are caught out impersonating Ďtypesí imperfectly that the natives reach for the Authenticity Bludgeon. Better not to try. Itís one of the great paradoxes of modern times that an Indian who tries to speak Indian in foreign parts will sound like Peter Sellers.
But to allow Tabuís accent or a morning wedding to get in the way of enjoying a good film would be perverse. Fiction isnít only or even primarily about the shock of recognition, the pleasure we feel when a writer or director or actor gets something Ďjust rightí. Thatís one of its minor rewards. An example of one of the real pleasures of good fiction is the rush of sentimental empathy that I felt when I saw the adult Gogol sitting in a barbershop having his head shaved because his father had died, the poignance of that scene heightened by its juxtaposition with a scene from Gogolís childhood when the boy sees his father (Ashoke/Irrfan) clumsily shaving his head with a razor in his American bathroom because his father had died. Or the saddest moment in the book and the film when Ashoke walks Gogol to the end of a frozen pier. Alone with his son in the cold desolation of another world with no camera to bear witness to their bond, Ashoke asks Gogol to remember the moment. How long for, asks the boy, obediently. Forever, says the father who has travelled far enough from home to know that he has to live on in his sonís mind. Otherwise, what was it all for'
The alienation of the immigrant life and the way in which immigrant men try to make themselves whole with filial piety and son-love are conjured up with an intensity that no other form of writing or telling can even attempt. The summarizing ugliness of that previous sentence tells us why we turn to fiction. It is for small revelations like these, that have nothing to do with analysis or anthropology or authenticity or recognition.