Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What I'm Watching...

Mira Nair's gentle meditation about cultural disorientation is a quiet film in which nothing much happens, that is, besides the ordinary events of life. An immigrant couple in New York from India has two children. The children grow up in suburbia and become adults. Key characters work, have relationships, and die in the natural course of their lives. A rather mundane story, after all.

Nair's genius lies in two aspects of telling this simple tale. First, life through her eyes is stunningly beautiful. This film, like her others, exhibits the lush sensuality of India itself--its vivid colors, textures and sounds. Whether it is the dramatic decor of a Bengali wedding, the striking whiteness of a Hindu funeral, or the common streets, apartments and work places of New York, sights and sounds burst all around with life and vitality. The awkward and tentative lovemaking of a young couple whose marriage was arranged, or a single shot of samosas sizzling in a pan on a hot stove can evoke intense passion and yearning.

Second, her characters are genuine and reveal the depth of ordinary life experience. The three primary characters, father Ashoke (Irfan Khan), mother Ashima (Tabu), and son, Gogol (Kal Penn) all demonstrate remarkable capacity to be quiet and patient in their roles. Words like modest, graceful, gentle, thoughtful and careful describe them well. We learn the full force of ordinary events by watching them simply be real people who feel that force and don't by their acting try to persuade us how significant these things are.

The film's title and much of its subplot refers to the name "Gogol" given to the son. Nicolai Gogol was a Russian author, and it is intriguing to watch how a Russian name given to an American boy by his Indian immigrant parents helps him negotiate the tricky journey of figuring out one's cultural identity and place in the world.

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