Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew,
and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way.
Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.
Like her 1992 film Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s latest film deals with the Indian immigrant experience in America. This time it is the Ganguli family, three generations of which we first see in Calcutta. Ashima (Tabu) is a classically trained singer and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) an aspiring engineer. She would love to become a professional singer, but acquiesces to her family’s desire to marry her off. After their arranged marriage, they move to America in the middle of a winter they are unprepared for. They conceive and give birth to a son, whom Ashoke impulsively names in honor of the Russian writer Gogol. This comes about because the hospital authorities would not release Ashima and her baby until the child’s name is entered into the birth registry. However, in India the custom is for the maternal grandmother to bestow the name, a process that can take a year or more. Unable to contact his family in time, Ashoke thus gives his son a name that the boy will both embrace and rebel against.
After a daughter is born, and the two children grow older, they become typically American in their preference for rock and roll and all the other accouterments of middle class American youth. The parents struggle to maintain a balance act between the two cultures, this becoming especially difficult when the children are old enough to date and think about marriage. There is a lovely sequence in which the two young adults begin to appreciate their Indian heritage when they return to India: bored with all the family visitation, both are impressed by their tour of the magnificent Taj Mahal.
Golgol comes to resent his unusual name, and when his father tells him that he was named after the Russian writer, who himself spent much of his life outside his native land, the boy resents it even more, changing his name to Nick. Only after his son’s unhappy love affair with an American yuppie princess and other events does Ashoke reveal to his son how important Nicholas Gogol’s writings had been in his own life. As we see in the prologue of the film, it was while reading a copy of Gogol’s The Overcoat that the Indian train he was riding on crashed. Those around him were killed, but the book saved his life.
As with many of her other films, there is much color and appreciation for both India and the family attempting to navigate in a new and strange land. Family ties are affirmed as being strong enough to bond the family together despite the pull of different cultures. It is good also to see again the young actor who co-starred in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle Kal Penn portray Gogol. Mira Nair is one of the select company of filmmakers whose name in the director’s slot draw me to a film without having to know anything else about it.
1) One of the pleasures of watching a good film is being transported into a foreign or unusual setting: this is especially true of a Mira Nair film. What details made the most impression on you? What did you think of the brief tour of the Taj Mahal?
2) Have you been taken by a novel as Ashoke was, and if so what was it and why?
3) Have you been conflicted about your name? How is Gogol at times similar to Esau in regard to his heritage?
4) Is there a story behind your parents choosing your name? Compared to the way that the people in the Bible chose names for their offspring, what are the reasons for name selection in our society?
5) At times the Ganguli family seems about to be torn apart. What crises has your family weathered?
6) Have you had a close-call which leads you to say what Ashoke says to his son, “Every day since then has been a gift” ? How is this a good way to begin each day?