In the two decades since director Mira Nair made a splash with her debut film, the Oscar nominated Salaam Bombay, she has made richly textured movies like Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala that examine family and intimate relationships. Her latest film, an adaptation of the popular Jhumpa Lahiri novel about two generations of a Bengali family is an almost epic work about the immigrant experience.
The sprawling story begins in Calcutta in the late 1970s with an arranged marriage between Ashoke, a survivor of a recent train accident, and Ashima. The couple settle in a cold-water walk-up in New York City and begin to assimilate to a new way of life and one another.
Soon they start to raise a family. Their first child, a boy, is named after Ashoke’s favorite writer, the Russian Nikhil Gogol. The name is loaded with meaning for both father and son, carrying a weight that becomes one of the major themes of the film.
Gogol, who later changes his name to the more American-sounding Nick, becomes the focus of the film. He rejects the traditions of his background, preferring the more cosmopolitan lifestyle offered by Manhattan and his WASPy girlfriend. A death in the family forces him to reevaluate his choices.
That’s the Cole’s Notes version of the story. Nair has reduced Lahiri’s 300 plus pages to two hours of screen time but still manages to cover a lot of ground. At its core, though, this is a movie about assimilation—the parents must come to grips with their new country and their children must find a way to live in America without denying their cultural background.
Gogol’s internal struggle is well presented by Kal Penn, an actor best known for outrageous comedy roles in films like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Epic Movie. He delivers a remarkably restrained performance as he portrays the character from geeky teenager to self-assured young man.
We’ve seen this sort of thing on-screen before, but Nair’s brings a sensitivity to the film that brings the characters alive. Gogol’s struggle with his identity could have been hackneyed in less capable hands, but the director’s nimble touch and heartfelt treatment of the material rings true.