‘The Namesake’ follows a journey of racial identity, relationships

Ashoke Ganguli curled up in a train compartment, clutching a book of short stories and poems by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. An old man interrupted him, issuing advice to the young traveler.

“Pack a pillow and blanket,” he said. “See the world.”

There was a sudden crash, jarring passengers from their seats and leaving behind a scene of destruction.

While bed-ridden after the accident, Ashoke, one of the main characters in the movie, “The Namesake,” reflected on the old man’s words and decided to travel to America.

After recovering, Ashoke’s parents arranged a marriage for him. He and his wife, Ashima, traveled to New York to start their family. Ashoke named his son, Gogol, after the author whose book he was reading during the life-changing crash.

“The Namesake,” based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, was screened to Northeastern students before it’s wide release, at the Museum of Fine Arts last night. The event was sponsored by the Asian American Center (AAC) and the International Student ‘ Scholar Institute. The movie opens nationwide Friday.

The movie follows Gogol, who is portrayed by actor Kal Penn of “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” fame, as he learns about being the son of Indian immigrants growing up in America. His classmates tease him about his name, making him wonder about his parents, “Of all the fricken’ Russian authors in the world, why’d they have to name me after a weird one?” he says in the movie.

Gogol asks his parents for permission to change his name to something more conventional. He starts going by the name Nick, and begins one of two failed romances. One, with a Caucasian girl, leads him on extended vacations and ends shortly after the death of Gogol’s father.

Before his passing, Ashoke explained the origin of Gogol’s name to him, reflecting on the train accident. With age, Gogol accepts his name and his Indian heritage and is supportive of his family members during their cultural struggles.

The movie gracefully blends comedy with drama, as it shows the characters’ grapples with their heritage. Certain scenes illustrate the differences between Gogol’s American and Indian influences: while Gogol jogs through the streets of his parents’ hometown, his grandmother sends a man after him to make sure he is safe.

Despite his heavy build, the man chases after Gogol, saying “I can do anything. I know English.”

Andrew Shen, director of the AAC, said it was the first time the center screened a film in a large scale setting. The film was chosen because the AAC’s book club read “The Namesake” last year.

Shen said “The Namesake” presents ideas all members of the campus community can relate to.

“I think there’s a theme that’s fairly universal, not just for Asian-Americans, about the parts of your family and parts of your background that you hold tightly and the other parts of you that you create on your own,” he said. “And I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

Several students at the screening said they attended after reading the book.

“The content of the book is about a mix between knowing your roots and heritage and living in America,” said Emily Turner, a sophomore international affairs major. “It’s a universal theme for a lot of Americans.”

Law student Carolyn Chen said she was disappointed with “The Namesake” because it was “too ambitious.” But she said she could relate to the film.

“I connected with being self-absorbed in my own life, and knowing that my parents, who are also immigrants, have gone through hardships,” she said.

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