Family makes a delicious cultural stew
How much are we the product of our parents, and how much are we the result of our own creation?
It's often a surprising revelation when children first acknowledge their debt to those who gave them life, and such is the case for Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn), the issue of two India-born parents who wants nothing to do with his ethnic origins.
Early in director Mira Nair's charming film, we meet Gogol's parents, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Bollywood star Tabu), who begin a life together in New York City following their arranged marriage.
The shy couple's assimilation comes slowly, and their early experiences with urban laundromats and gas stoves are gently humorous. They grow to love one another and build a life that includes their son, named for the Russian author Nikolai Gogol.
As he grows into manhood, Gogol rejects all things Indian, preferring to be called 'Nick' and taking up with a blond, yuppie girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett). The insistent Westernization of Gogol and his sister leads a resigned Ashima to shake her head and declare, 'Sometimes when I close my eyes and listen to you, I feel like I have given birth to strangers.'
As Gogol, Penn takes a huge leap away from the goofball roles he played in dumb comedies like 'Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle' and 'Van Wilder 2.'
He captures the self-absorbed shallowness of youth perfectly, while still maintaining a sympathetic vibe - his bad behavior isn't any worse than most teenagers' and somewhat understandable given that his parents' culture is so far removed from that of his friends.
Based on the 2003 novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair's collaboration with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala recalls their work on 'Salaam Bombay!' and 'Mississippi Masala,' overflowing with intelligence, beauty and a canny understanding of how the immigrant experience and the vagaries of class affect people in Western society.
It's also a film about the nature and evolution of family - how love grows, how it defines us, and the different directions that our hearts can pull us.
In addition to being a frankly beautiful film in which small, quiet moments speak volumes, Nair and Taraporevala's adaptation deftly keeps the narrative flowing while defying audience expectations.
What at first appears to be a story of immigrants adapting to a new life becomes a cross-generational culture clash. Then, when we've settled into that portion of the story, life-changing events give Gogol insight into the ways that he's been shaped by both his parents' Bengali world and his own American experiences.
It's a rich film, both in the textured story of identity, family and tradition, and as a colorful, sensual work that creates a palpable sense of place.
Whatever your background, the yearning of Nair's characters for a place in the world where they truly belong is a feeling that strikes deep in the heart.
- Dawn Taylor