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Nair's 'The Namesake': A Life Between Two Worlds

Mira Nair's films have included <em>Mississippi Masala</em> and <em>Vanity Fair</em>.
Chris Jackson / Getty Images
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Mira Nair's films have included <em>Mississippi Masala</em> and <em>Vanity Fair</em>.

The Namesake, the latest movie from filmmaker Mira Nair, uses the immigrant experience to explore the meaning of identity. Based on the best-selling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film follows a couple from India and the American family they create.

Nair herself was born in India and now lives in the United States. She has touched on the experience of Indians in America in earlier films, notably 1991's Mississippi Masala, an interracial romance set in the Deep South.

At the heart of The Namesake is a name — Gogol, a Russian name, after the writer Nikolai Gogol. The name holds deep meaning for the father of the family, but his son carries it as a burden until his father reveals from where it came.

Gogol is played by 29-year-old actor Kal Penn. It's quite a departure from his best-known role, in the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

The film is based on a novel that spans 30 years on two continents. Ashoke and Ashima, a young Bengali couple from Calcutta marry as strangers and come to New York City in the '70s to begin their lives together.

The film is about "the relationship between the parents and [their] children as they negotiate their way, living between America and Calcutta," Nair tells Renee Montagne.

The director says she shot the film as if Calcutta and New York were one city "because that's what it feels like to be between worlds. The kind of in-between thing that Ashoke and Ashima feel in their soul, being in New York, thinking of Calcutta. But as Gogol enters their world, I think the film becomes less nostalgic and much more about the present."

Penn says Harold and Kumar co-star John Cho introduced him to Lahiri's book.

"As soon as I read it we talked about trying to get the rights," Penn says. "We placed calls to our respective lawyers and in the interim said we don't know anybody other than Mira Nair who could do justice to the intimacy of the novel. And then we got the phone call back saying, 'You can't have the rights. Mira Nair beat you to it.'"

Penn has Nair to thank for his career — and not just because he's starring in her new movie. He says seeing Mississippi Masala and its realistic depiction of the Indian-American experience inspired him to become an actor.

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