he Namesake is the entertainment version of the holy trinity for South Asians the world over: A Pulitzer Prize-winning desi author, a director who put brown people in films before they were popular, and the world’s most famous South Asian actor. Yes, the coming together of Jhumpa Lahiri, Mira Nair and Kal Penn has had people buzzing for a couple of years now, ever since Lahiri’s book found its way into Nair’s hands.
And it’s not just South Asians who are enjoying Nair’s poignant adaptation of the story of an immigrant family. The box office has been pretty kind to a film that’s only had a limited release thus far: In its second week of release, The Namesake has grossed $1.1 million and scratched its way into the North American Top 20. Thanks to its success, the film will open in another 69 theaters around the country on March 23. Maybe it’s because the reviews have been mostly positive, or perhaps folks just want to know what that kid from Harold and Kumar is doing in a serious flick. In any case, there have been dozens of articles about how the film came to be, and by now, we’ve all surely heard about how it was Mira Nair’s teenage son who pushed for Kal Penn’s inclusion in the film.
But we’re not going to tell you the things you already know. Here are 21 things you probably didn’t know about The Namesake. Already a pro, or did something surprise you? Tell us what you think at the end of the piece.
The Start of Something Good
If it wasn’t for Harold and Kumar, there would be no Namesake (at least not in its current incarnation). John Cho, who played Harold in the White Castle flick, recommended that Penn read Lahiri’s novel. “Since I live in the plastic bubble known as Los Angeles, I was not aware that The Namesake had come out. After proper chastisement from Cho, I went out and bought the book, read it in a single sitting, and loved it. John and I discussed trying to get rights to the film,” says Penn. They found out later that Mira Nair had acquired the rights the week before—and so began Penn’s campaign to get cast in the movie. (Nair’s son, Zohran, was a fan of the stoner comedy and begged his mother to choose Penn as protagonist Gogol Ganguli. Before Penn, Nair was considering casting Bollywood heartthrob Abhishek Bachchan. The rest is history.)
2. While the story of The Namesake spans multiple cultures, so does the money backing it. The $10.5 million film is co-financed by the Indian production company UTV Motion Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures and the Japanese company Entertainment Farm.
“The lullabies I had Ashima sing in the film are all lullabies that Mrs. Lahiri sings to her grandchildren.”
3. Sooni Taraporevela, Nair’s best friend “since [she] went to Harvard at 18,” wrote the screenplay for the film. She also scripted Nair’s Mississippi Masala. To stay true to Lahiri’s style, Nair and Taraporevela studied Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Some of the stories even made appearances in the film: The piece about the couple who finds Jesus figurines in their new home (“This Blessed House”) inspired the reindeer Christmas lights that adorn the home of the Gangulis’ neighbors.
4. Nair didn’t stop at that story. After the screenplay was done, she added another element lifted from Maladies. There is a scene in which Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) shows Ashima (Tabu) a map of the New York City subway so that she can go downtown to buy fish from the Fulton Fish Market. The importance of fish in the life of a new bride is also in the short story “Mrs. Sen’s,” in which the title character, a bored and lonely new housewife, was only happy when she received letters from India or had the chance to eat fresh fish.
Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, the parents of protagonist Gogol Ganguli, are based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s real parents, Amar and Tia Lahiri. In fact, when actors Tabu and Khan came to the States, Nair had them spend a day with Lahiri’s family in Rhode Island. “I loved Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri. They became like my own aunt and uncle,” says Nair. “Jhumpa’s mother is a lot like Ashima—someone who is incredibly cultured, very knowledgeable about Bengali movies and songs. The lullabies I had Ashima sing in the film are all lullabies that Mrs. Lahiri sings to her grandchildren.”
6. Even the vivid blue cabinets in the Ganguli family kitchen were inspired by the ones in Lahiri’s family home. “Those cabinets are almost a direct copy of her kitchen cabinets,” says Nair.
7. Amar Lahiri, a librarian in Rhode Island, says both the novel and the film affected him profoundly: “There were so many touching moments in the film that brought back memories of our friends who lost their parents in India while they were here.” He adds that the story’s pivotal train accident was based on a similar event that happened to his cousin in 1961.
Mira Nair had originally wanted Rani Mukherjee to play Ashima Ganguli, but her availability didn’t work with the production dates. “Rani and I will definitely work together. But for The Namesake I wonder if she’d have been comfortable aging far older than she is. The heroine has to go from 21 to 50,” say Nair. Konkana Sen Sharma was also considered for the role, but Tabu won out in the end. Good thing—she delivers perhaps the most powerful performance in the film.
Behind the Scenes
9. Lahiri’s family members took roles in the production at Nair’s request. “Mira wanted to pepper the scenes with people from my life,” says Lahiri. She and her parents appear in various fleeting shots in the movie (the author is cast as “Jhumpa Massi”), including the wedding scene in Kolkata which featured many other Lahiri relatives. “Mira Nair has given us more than a beautiful film,” says Tia Lahiri. “We feel as if our whole family is connected to the film—we have become a part of it.” The author is grateful for the inclusion, writing, “In real life, my nuclear family in America and my extended family in India are separated by about 8,000 miles. But Mira binds us together, in the form of extras embedded in numerous scenes.”
In real life, Nair’s son isn’t allowed to speak English in their home, where only Hindustani is permitted.
10. Irrfan Khan also had to spend a week in New Jersey with Nair’s caterer, Anup-da. “He talks with that early accent you first have when you arrive and I wanted that for Ashoke,” says Nair.
When the cast shot the scene at the Howrah train station in India, larger-than-usual crowds almost disrupted the filming. The press published the date of the filming beforehand; as a result, thousands of people swarmed the area. Luckily, things went fine thanks to the 100 security guards hired for the set. On The Namesake blog, Penn wrote: “The prodigiousness of the station itself made it feel as though the entire location was a character in the film.”
12. In high school, Gogol spends much of his time with his two buddies Jason and Marc. On the day the cast was to shoot the scene with Gogol and his friends, the actor who was supposed to play Marc never showed up. (The call time was 5:30 a.m.; the actor overslept.) Penn wrote on The Namesake blog that knowing who played Gogol’s friends was important: “I specifically called up the two guys playing my high-school best friends back in February when I got to New York and wanted to hang out with them to develop some backstory (although most of it is already present in Jhumpa’s incredibly detailed writing). So before shooting any of the film, I was able to attach and commit the faces of those two actors to the characters they play—which solidifies a lot of who Gogol is, particularly with regard to his relationship at home vs. outside of the home.” Nair ended up casting a production assistant named Justin in the role.
Life vs. Art
13. In the film, Gogol and his sister Sonia (played by Nair’s niece Sahira) barely speak their parents’ native Bengali. In real life, Nair’s son isn’t allowed to speak English in their home, where only Hindustani is permitted.
While Ashima and Ashoke had an arranged marriage, Nair herself, who says she’s “very intrigued” by the concept, has never had one. In fact, she actively rebelled against it. When she was 18, her mother told Nair of a proposal from a wealthy industrialist’s family. A meeting was arranged at a wedding. “At the wedding, I borrowed my friend’s outrageous, flouncy gypsy skirt, and I strode up to the father with both of my older brothers on each arm. I said, ‘Meet my two boyfriends. I have no idea who to go with tonight.'” The family lost interest in Nair soon after that.
15. To protect his privacy, Penn used to check into hotels under the pseudonym Gogol Ganguli.
What’s in a Name
16. Kal Penn is credited twice at the end of the film—once as Kal Penn, and once as Kalpen Modi. “In Gogol’s case … [his name] has nothing to do with ethnicity or heritage. It’s just that he’s been assigned to this dysfunctional Russian author, and he can’t stand it,” says Penn. “That’s what bothered Gogol, and I thought that was interesting, so I asked Mira, ‘How do you feel about Gogol and Nikhil being credited separately as Kal Penn and Kalpen Modi? Especially when they are two different age ranges and the characters are a little different.’ And she thought it was a great idea.”
Of course, Penn only changed his own name as a lark. He told Nirali in 2004, “Almost as a joke to prove friends wrong, and half as an attempt to see if what I was told would work (that anglicized names appeal more to a white-dominated industry), I put ‘Kal Penn’ on my resume and photos.” His audition callbacks went up by 50 percent. “It showed me that there really is such an amount of racism (not just overt, but subconscious as well). I kept the anglicized version of my name on pictures so that I had a better chance of auditions, but I never intended to be known as ‘Kal Penn.’ Ironically, once you start working under any name, you can’t easily be known by another—even if it is your real name. I still prefer Kalpen Modi.” And the papers prove it: “Gogol changes his name legally, but I just changed mine on my headshots.”
18. There is a companion book and art exhibit for The Namesake. It started last summer when Nair designed the book mixing text from the novel and images from the movie alongside images from contemporary photographers. “I love contemporary photography,” says Nair. Various frames in the movie were inspired by the work of photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Mitch Epstein and Raghubir Singh. Once the book was done, Nair took it to the Sepia Gallery in New York City. “Namesake / Inspiration” is the resulting exhibit that runs from March 9 to April 21.
Penn used to check into hotels under the pseudonym Gogol Ganguli.
19. To promote the film, Kal Penn put up a post on The Namesake blog that stirred some controversy. On February 21, he uploaded a video of him interviewing “Ed and Larry,” two supposed Ku Klux Klan members (the actors playing the duo actually appeared in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). “That was probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen,” says one ‘Klansman.’ The other says he loved the film. Penn wraps up by saying that the Klan is divided and asks the audience to decide. The video resulted in angry emails from fans. Penn posted a clarification on February 27.
20. Thanks to his work in The Namesake, Irrfan Khan now has an agent in the United States. His dream role? “Jim Morrison, because he was magical. If I could live that kind of passion, I’ll be somebody else.” According to DNA India, he also enjoys his status as “the thinking women’s sex icon.” “I like being called a sex icon—thinking woman or no thinking woman. It flatters me.”
Lahiri was moved by seeing her work on the big screen: “I was burning with curiosity as we were going to see the movie. I had no idea what to expect. I had seen shots and stills so I had a sense. But to see it, I was just overwhelmed and had a very emotional reaction. I didn’t cry when I watched it. I cried afterward.”