Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Art Behind 'The Namesake'

I've been watching Mira Nair's Director's Commentary on The Namesake DVD, and it's been surprising to see how much of the film was inspired by other film directors and visual artists' work. This was a film I liked quite a bit when I first saw it, and it had the unusual distinction of being a film my parents also liked. (I also liked the book, though I know from earlier discussions that a fair number of readers did not.) Watching the Director's Commentary I realize there was a great deal in Nair's film I had missed earlier.

Despite the immense amount of craft that went into the making of the film and the strong performances by Irfan Khan and Tabu, I doubt that The Namesake will get much attention come Oscar time. Why not is an endless question; one might point out that the Oscars don't really award the year's "best" films so much as the films the major studios feel are at once somewhat "serious" and "commercially viable."

Still, the nice thing about writing for a blog is, you can pay tribute to the films that caught your attention from a given year, even if no one else agrees with you.

In the post below, I explore some names from among the large array of people who inspired Nair and collaborated with her as she put together the visual and aural elements of the film. The artists are both Desi (mostly Bengali) and American, though it's really the former group that makes the biggest impact on the film aesthetically.


Like Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake is in a sense a "milieu" film. In the first film, Nair used many members of her own family in the smaller roles; in her adaptation of Lahiri's novel, it's Jhumpa Lahiri's family, for the most part, that gets the bit parts -- Jhumpa herself shows up, at one point. Nair does use her niece, who was raised in the U.S., to play Gogol's sister.

Nair also uses an Indian film critic named Jaganath Guha in one bit part, and the famous historian Partha Chatterjee, in another.

One surprise: I didn't know that Irfan Khan (who plays Gogol's father, Ashoke) had actually had a small role in Mira Nair's earlier film, Salaam, Bombay, when he was just eighteen years old, and a student at the National School of Drama.

Bengali Artists and Filmmakers

At one point Ashima's father is seen painting while sitting back, with his knees up. This apparently is an homage to Satyajit Ray, who painted in a similar posture. Nair also mentions that the sequence where the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima starts to develop (i.e., after they get married and move to the U.S.) is inspired by Ray's Apur Sansar ("The World of Apu").

Nair also uses Bengali actress Supriya Devi in a bit part, as another homage to Bengali art cinema (Supriya Devi acted in a number of Ritwik Ghatak films, including Meghe Dhaka Tara).

Asian Underground Musicians

The film's music is done by Nitin Sawhney. It's really pretty, understated music that has some powerful moments. Nair also uses State of Bengal's "Flight IC 408" at one point as the Ganguli family is en route to India.

Baul Singers

In addition to cutting edge Brit-Asian musicians, Nair brings in traditional Baul singers, Lakhan Das and Bhava Pagla.

Indian photographers and Design Artists

The idea for the changing fonts (where the lettering goes from Bengali calligraphy to Roman) in the opening credits comes from Mumbai-based design-artist, Divya Thakur. In her commentary, Nair calls the idea "brilliant," and I tend to agree (it produces an interesting visual effect, and the symbolism of a transition from one font to the other parallels the idea of cultural transformation that is at the core of both the novel and Nair's film).

The photographs of the famous Indian photographers Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh inspired a number of the Calcutta shots, including the image, early in the film, of Durga being carried on a wagon on the street in the early morning.

The Taj Mahal

The greatest work of art used in Nair's film is, of course, the Taj Mahal, and Nair films it from some unusual angles. The most interesting might be her use of the interplay of arches and domes (as in, the view of the splendid domes of the Taj through the arches of an auxiliary building).

Western Artists

The look of the paintings used in the opening credits are to some extent inspired by Mark Rothko. Nair says she wanted a "handmade" look, and the paintings do work that way -- the texture of the canvas is visible, as are the brush strokes of the paint within the big swaths of color filling up the screen.

Nair used an installation by Diller and Scofidio at JFK ("Travelogues"), which features images relating to travel using a neat optical effect (produced by "lenticulars").

The visual style of the whole sequence where the Ganguli family is at the beach in winter is inspired by Chris Marker's art-house classic, La Jetee.

Quite a number of Nair's shots at the airport were inspired by photographs by Garry Winogrand.

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Anonymous narayan said...

Trivia : When MJ saw it in the theater she reported "they mentioned your town in the movie". The subtitles however, in two places, give some other name when the actors say Jamshedpur. One more complaint I have about the numskulls who do subtitles.
What is the Jamshedpur connection with Lahiri or Nair anyway?

4:25 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Hi Narayan, if there is a connection to Jamshedpur, it's with Lahiri's family, not Mira Nair's. I'll probably have to go back to the novel and see if that is where Lahiri says the Ganguli family is from originally.

There is an excerpt of the novel here; Jamshedpur is mentioned about half-way through. I don't remember if it is mentioned again...

5:22 PM  
Blogger Madhat said...

Nair also mentions that the sequence where the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima starts to develop (i.e., after they get married and move to the U.S.) is inspired by Ray's Apur Sansar ("The World of Apu").

When I saw the film, I likened those scenes to Apur Sansar. Glad to know that they were indeed intentional. Mira Nair is a very careful filmmaker and I loved her commentary on the Salaam, Bombay DVD.
Thanks for the post. I think I will go out and get the DVD.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Ritwik Banerjee said...

A rather interesting post. Among all the films that I saw last year, I admired the film The Namsake more than any other. There are so many aspects of Mira Nair's meticulous approach that you bring out in this post. The portion of the film where Irfan and Tabu move to the USA after their marriage did remind me of Ray's Apur Sansaar, but I had missed out on all the other points that you mention here. Good work!

2:17 PM  

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