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Pulitzer Novel Translates Into Onscreen Indian Immigrant Tale

Indian-born director Mira Nair (“Vanity Fair,” “Monsoon Wedding”) skillfully translates Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s highly regarded first novel, “The Namesake,” to the silver screen. Nair’s longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala (“My Own Country,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Salaam, Bombay!”) pens an ambitious adapted screenplay that preserves the essence of Lahiri’s story. It’s a sweeping, yet modest tale of a Bengali family’s immigration from Calcutta to New York, where they make a new life for themselves in the West.

The film presents various key milestones in the Ganguli family’s lives, each of which changes the destiny of one or more family members. Each sequence has a distinctive rhythm befitting the time period. As one episode rapidly transitions to the next, years advance off screen—yet the pace doesn’t feel abrupt, a credit to a balanced editing job by Allyson Johnson (“Vanity Fair,” “Monsoon Wedding”).

Nair doesn’t have a lot of time to explain everything, but that doesn’t really matter. Nothing really seems lacking as the audience gets a distilled taste of the characters and their situations. In many ways, “The Namesake” is an impressionistic film, enhanced by excellent cinematography by Frederick Elmes (“The Ice Storm,” “Blue Velvet”) and production design by Stephanie Carroll (“Kama Sutra”).

The first half hour presents a traditional Indian arranged marriage, showing how Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) subsequently fall in love with each other. (Tabu and Khan are big Bollywood stars.) They immigrate to the States, where Ashoke attends engineering school. Then comes the birth of their son Gogol (named after the Russian author, a favorite of Ashoke) and daughter Sonia. There’s the inevitable conflict between the traditional ways of the parents and the Western influences surrounding their children.

This subtle immigrant family saga dodges the stereotypical melodramatic face-offs. Reluctantly, the parents acquiesce, with a bit of melancholy, to their children’s inevitable Americanization. In school, classmates make fun of young Gogol’s name, causing him to reject it in favor of Nikhil, his more Western-friendly formal name. As a young adult, Nikhil leads a model life of assimilation in Manhattan as a dashing young architect, complete with an upper-class white girlfriend (Australian Jacinda Barrett). But after a family tragedy, Nikhil/Gogol returns to his Bengali roots.

Indian-American actor Kal Penn, known primarily as a comic (“Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”) takes a big risk in tackling a serious lead role as Gogol, a sort of prodigal son. Penn seems a bit lost in the part, but that’s particularly fitting for the character of Gogol, who’s seeking to find his sense of identity throughout his life.

The movie reflects Nair’s own journey from India to Harvard, where she started the path to becoming a filmmaker. Today, she splits her time between Calcutta and New York. For Nair, this twist on the classic immigrant tale is a very personal film, yet the underlying themes make it a truly universal cross-cultural story.

The Namesake (English, Bengali and Hindi with subtitles; 122 min.) AFI Silver Theatre AMC Loews Georgetown Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

‘Throne of Blood’: Kurosawa Meets Shakespeare

Today, the word Shakespeare conjures a lofty image of highbrow culture in many people’s minds. But that’s a relatively recent notion in the popular mindset, likely propelled by the mental obstacle of iambic pentameter, blocking the audience from fully embracing the Bard’s intricate dialogue. During Shakespeare’s own time, his plays were designed as entertainment for the common people. Think about it—after all, Shakespearean plots have plenty of drama and action.

So it’s not so farfetched for Akira Kurosawa, famous for superb fight sequences in samurai flicks, to helm an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” With 1957’s “Throne of Blood,” the most famous Japanese director filmed one of the most well-known plays by the most famous English-language author. Minus a redacted scene, Kurosawa follows Shakespeare’s story pretty closely. After all, why mess around with something that works?

Nevertheless, the Bard’s poetry is inevitably lost in translation. Knowing that, however, Kurosawa’s innovations are on a visual level. To startling effect, he leverages the formalized structures and movements of Noh drama. Furthermore, he throws the audience into the suffocating chaos enveloping ambitious warlord Taketori Washizu (Kurosawa’s regular star Toshirô Mifune), the mad Macbeth surrogate oozing pent-up illusions of grandeur. The evil, scheming Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada in the Lady Macbeth role) deftly pulls her husband’s strings. The principals’ vivid performances punctuate the emotional cauldron of their characters.

“Throne of Blood” was an early warm-up for 1985’s “Ran,” an arresting adaptation of “King Lear.” It’s still intrinsically Japanese, but Kurosawa employs the wide screen and color to full effect. His restrained, carefully choreographed action sequences add large-scale formal military maneuvers, while the perspective is more distant, as if the Lear-like patriarch is looking in astonishment at the proceedings from afar.

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jô) (Japanese with subtitles; 105 min.) AFI Silver Theatre Fri., April 13 to Thu., April 19

4.5 out of 5 stars

‘2 or 3 Things’: Prostitute Private Eye

With 1959’s “Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard boldly ushered in the French New Wave. His cinematic innovations, such as jump cuts and nonlinear storytelling, have become so entrenched in the mainstream that “Breathless” doesn’t seem so startling today. As the 1960s progressed, he further mashed up cinematic forms, continuing to discard traditional narrative and characters. In 1966, Godard made the avant-garde “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” originally designed as a remake of “The Big Sleep.”

In Godard’s version, the big shoes of private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) are filled by housewife-mother-prostitute Juliette (Marina Vlady). Our heroine takes the audience through the concrete jungle of Paris, where she turns tricks to add to the family coffers. The narrator explains, “In order to live in Paris today, on no matter what social level, one is forced to prostitute oneself in one way or another.”

Godard considers his films to be no different than other media such as the textual realm of essays and literary criticisms. “2 or 3 Things” is a hybrid art form mixing images (often unleashed from plot), big printed words filling up the whole screen as billboard intertitles (some politically provocative, others meaningless noise), and seemingly random dialogue that’s often more like a social commentary monologue.

Further employing the Brechtian technique used in his preceding films, Godard’s characters talk directly to the audience just as readily as they do to each other. Godard is just about in full experimental mode, and to do that, he shot “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” during the same time period as “Made in the U.S.A.”—one film in the morning, one in the afternoon. Clearly, he makes up the rules as he goes along.

By the time Godard improvised his way through shooting and the editing room, the completed print could barely be called a “movie” as defined by the average person. To this seasoned filmgoer, it’s still reasonably accessible, which is far more than I can say about most of Godard’s recent work.

In fact, I found it rather enjoyable during my first screening. And that was despite the venue’s severe technical deficiencies, making the experience more like an audio program with visuals in which an extremely blurry, barely viewable video projection cropped much of the original widescreen image. But don’t worry: AFI, the current venue for “2 or 3 Things,” has a crisp, new print showcasing Raoul Coutard’s color cinematography in its original scope vista.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle) (French with subtitles; 90 min.; scope) AFI Silver Theatre Opens Fri., April 27

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

Filmfest DC #21 The 21st Filmfest DC showcases a French theme called “Voila Cinema!” On Thu., April 19, at 6 p.m., the festival kicks off at the Lincoln Theater with the much talked about Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose.” Director Olivier Dahan holds a Q&A, followed by the opening night gala. On Sun., April 29, at 4 p.m. at the Regal Gallery Place, the closing night’s screening of “Paris, Je T’Aime” is graced by legendary actress Fanny Ardant’s introduction. Most screenings take place at 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, minimizing the logistical hassles for the dedicated cineaste. (202) 628-FILM, www.filmfestdc.org

‘Screaming Masterpiece’ Irreverently titled and subtitled “1000 Years of Icelandic Popular Music”, Ari Alexander Ergus Magnusson’s documentary is out on DVD (5.1 Dolby) after a theatrical release plus fest stops at Cannes, Berlin, AFI, etc. The visually kinetic global tour blends performances with interviews, spanning the Sugarcubes (1986-92) with Björk to newer stars Sigur Rós. (A member often DJs at Saint-Ex when in D.C.) www.screamingmasterpiece.com

National Museum of Women in the Arts “Like Father, Like Daughter” (April 3, 11 and 16) offers Asia Argento’s (sired by Dario) “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” plus Sofia Coppola’s (Francis Ford) “Lick the Star;” Argento’s “Scarlet Diva” plus Isabella Rossellini’s (Roberto) “My Dad Is 100 Years Old;” and Agnes Merlet’s “Artemisia” (a painter is taught by her father Orazio Gentileschi). “Korean Women’s Shorts” are shown on Mon., April 23. (202) 783-7370, www.nmwa.org

Freer: Japanese Anime and Teshigahara The Fifth Annual National Cherry Blossom Festival Anime Marathon returns on Sat., April 14 at 11 a.m. A duo of Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “surreal parables about identity and existence” are also featured: “The Woman in the Dunes” (Fri., April 20, 7 p.m.) and “The Face of Another” (Sun., April 29, 2 p.m.). (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

National Gallery: Flaherty and Paris in the ’20s “In Praise of Independents: The Flaherty” presents highlights from the documentary conference on April 1, 7 and 8. “Paris in the ’20s” starts on Sat., April 14. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film.shtm

AFI Silver: Mizoguchi, Tati and Zinnemann Through April 25, don’t miss “Kenji Mizoguchi Masterworks,” considered by critics to be among the best films of all time. Through April 24, be mesmerized by French auteur Jacques Tati’s nearly wordless masterpieces, which established counterpoint through motion and sound. Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann’s 100th birthday includes his films from the U.S., U.K., France and Australia. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999