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The Namesake
The Namesake
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From The Jacket
A Portrait of the Film by Mira Nair Based on the Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri Introductions by Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri

This exclusive companion to The Namesake features a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri about the experience of seeing her novel “transposed” into film, an essay by acclaimed director Mira Nair about the critical influence of photographers on the scene during production in New York and Calcutta.

Brilliantly illuminating the immigrant experience and the tangled ties between generations, The Namesake follows the Ganguli family, whose move from Calcutta to New York evokes a lifelong balancing act to adapt to a new world while remembering the old. The parents, Ashoke and Ashima, long for the family and culture they left behind in India, while their children, Gogol and Sonia, struggle to find an identity without losing their heritage.

Interspersed with excerpts from the bestselling novel, this moviebook offers an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the transformation of this moving story from page to screen.

Mira Nair is the internationally acclaimed director of Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and Hysterical Blindness.

Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, has been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.

About the Author
The Namesake began as a note to myself, casually jotted down at some point in may twenties, consisting of the phrase “a boy named gogol.”

For the next five years those four words lay dormant in my notebook, yielding nothing. The boy named Gogol was literally so: a childhood friend and neighbor of one of my Calcutta cousins. In the summer of 1992 I went to India and stayed a while with my aunt and uncle and cousin in the neighborhood of Jadavpur. During that time I often heard the name Gogol called out from window to window, and from rooftop to rooftop—my cousin inviting Gogol to play, Gogol’s mother summoning him inside for dinner.

I must have seen, young Gogol when he would over to my cousin’s house, or as the two boys whacked cricket balls on the ground outside, but what accompanied me back to America at the end of that summer was simply and persistently a name. I remember thinking that Gogol was an unusual, somewhat whimsical name for a Bengali boy, but I was also aware that to people in Calcutta it was unquestioned, understood. Had my cousin’s friend grown up in America, that name, I knew, would most certainly have been questioned, would not have been understood in the same way.

And so the story took root. I started the first draft in 1997. It was neither a smooth nor a continuous journey, derailed by doubt, despair, and detours into two other eventually abandoned novels. I thought I had abandoned The Namesake, too, but after a long hiatus I finished the book in late zooz. When it was published, in the autumn of the following year, I was no longer connected to the novel either emotionally or imaginatively. Through I read from its pages and talked about it during my book tour, the creative journey had ended, and I had abandoned Gogol, with better conscience this time, for good.

By spring 2004 I was working on a new book and pregnant with my second child. It was then that I met with Mira Nair, and learned that she wanted a body named Gogol to be the subject of her next film. I had met Mira only once before, and thought I counted myself among her many admirers, technically we were all but strangers. But as I set talking to her in her office, I felt that we had known each other for years. I sensed that Gogol had possessed her as he had once possessed me, and I also sensed that she was about to do something extraordinary. In the course of that conversation The Namesake passed from my hands to hers, and I stepped back, as a parent steps back so that might discover a piece of the world on his or her own terms.

For the next several months I occupied a parentlike seat along the shore, at once watchful and detached, while Mira swan in open waters. From time to time she would disappear beneath the surface, out of my sight, and then I would get an exited phone call or an e-mail announcing that she had secured the budget, that she had found a distributor, that the screenplay was ready, that casting had begun. I had heard of novels being optioned for cinema and nothing happening for decades, if never. But less than a year after our initial meeting, not long after my daughter was born, Mira had moved several mountains and was family ready to shoot the film.

She had convinced my family to play extras in one scene, and so very early one morning my parents, sister, children, and I all piled into a van bound for Eastchester, New York. It is fairly common in New York City, where I live, to witness a film or television program being made on the streets. But apart from the occasional rubbernecking, I had never visited a movie set. I had certainly never stepped into a trailer and had my hair and face transformed for the camera. More important, I had never understood or appreciated the massive effort and apparatus required for a two-minute scene in a film. There were people to work the camera and lights, people to ferry the props on and off the set, people to bring and adjust and take away costumes, people to mark the floor with tape so that the actors knew where to stand. It was one of the most complicated and exhilarating dances I’ve ever witnessed. And how strange and wonderful to watch the story I had invented, alone and over the course of so many years, being collectively wrestled with anew.

At the center of this creative storm was Mira. Unlike me when I write, she was not locked up in a silent room, jolted from concentration by a mere telephone’s ring. She treated the whole day as if it were an enormous party she were hosting, greeting my family with her infectious smile when we arrived, seeing to it that we were comfortable, making sure we’d had enough lunch. She was also present to the details of the set in never way, attuned to each piece of the jigsaw puzzle, at one point calming me down about my (excessive, I thought) hairstyle and instructing the woman in the trailer to flatten my curls. Miraculously, in spite of all this she was utterly focused, in a world of her own making, and making the world of the Namesake her own.

People Talk About Immigrants as Being Displaced. I prefer the word “transposed,” used in music to describe shifting to a different key. That is what happens when a person leaves one homeland for another, and that is what happened as The Namesake made its voyage from paper to film. Much like the characters I write about, the story, on-screen, both is and is not itself. Its essence remains, but it inhabits a different realm, and must, like a transposed piece of music, conform to a different set rules. Books are earthbound entities, ordinary physical objects we hold in our hands and read when we have the time. Film, on the other hand, seems more ethereal, commanding our attention from start to finish, passing before our eyes quite literally like a dream. Movies also occupy a much more public place than novels do. They are publicly created, publicly consumed. But Mira has woven certain strands into the screen that only my family and I can fully appreciate, so that the film remains, for me, a deeply personal experience.

I real like my nuclear family in America and my extended family in India are separated by about eight thousand miles. But Mira binds us together, in the form of extras embedded in numerous scenes. My daughter, Noor, plays the part of Gogol’s sister, Sonia, receiving her annaprasan, when Bengali babies are given their first taste of solid food. Noor’s real annaprasan took place just a few weeks after Mira filmed that scene, and mysteriously, maddeningly, our video camera refused to refused to function during the ceremony. As a result, the only footage of Noor’s first meal—albeit an ersatz one—is thanks, most serendipitously, to Mira and her sublime cameraman, Fred Elmes.

The detail that touches me most has to do with a few pictures within this picture. Like Ashima’s father in The Namesake, my mother’s father was a painter. When Mira, in the course of her research, to my parents’ home in Rhode Island, she saw some of my grandfather’s paintings and asked to borrow them for the set of the film. My grandfather (who happened also to be great lover of the movies) never had the pleasure of knowing that people around the world see his watercolors one day. But Mira has done this, too.

Like immigrants who always carry two (or more) places in their hearts, The Namesake now lives and breathes in two separate spheres. The changes Mira has introduced are subtle. The timeline has been moved forward slightly, and instead of the anonymous New England town I write about, Mira place the Ganguli family somewhere outside New York. But these are particulars; the song remains the same. Thanks to Mira’s passion for a boy named Gogol, I will never thinks of The Namesake as belonging exclusively to me, but as a story we were both meant to tell. In my mind this is not a loss, but pure gain. To have someone as devoted and as gifted as Mira reinvent my novel, to watch her guide it safely and exquisitely into the magical arena of the motion picture, has been a humbling and thrilling passage. Together we have arrived at the closest I have felt to artistic collaboration and, most precious of all, an indelible friendship.

About The Author
If it weren’t for Photography, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. Every film I make is fueled by photographs. Sometimes it is a particular image of a photographer, sometimes it is what have learned by seeing the world through his or her eyes. Either way, photographs have always helped me crystallize the visual style of the film I’m about to make.

As I prepared to make a film of The Namesake, I had an idea for a frame: an image of a dusky Bengali beauty against a Mark Rothko painting in a sleek Madison Avenue space. Then, looking through a book of photographs by Raghubir Singh from the 1980s I came across a startling image of a red T-shirt drying on a flaking Calcutta ironwork railing, decaying Edwardian columns looming in the background. In its rich swath of color amid the layering of centuries, I realized that Rothko was alive and well in modern-day Calcutta. Raghubir’s photograph was among the first sings for me that a film of The Namesake could be made in an austere photographic style. With the great cinematographer Fred Elmes by my side, we conceived of each scene as a series of wide-angle shots, “democratic frames” within which the actors, not the camera, would move in a choreographed swirl.

The Namesake, for me, was inspired by grief. I had lost a beloved without warning, and as is our custom, we had to bury her the next day, in a bitterly cold field under yet-strewn skies near Newark Airport. This was our Ammy, who had spent her entire life in the red earth of East Africa, now being laid to rest under the icy glare of snow, very far from what she and we, her family, on a plane reading The Namesake. I had bought the novel months before in our local neighborhood bookstore, The Labyrinth, where my family spends many a desultory afternoon.

Now the book became a comfort, a source of real solace as I tried making sense of the finality of loss. Jhumpa’s writing distilled the nature of grief, the loss of a parent in a country that is not fully home, taking readers through a world of crisscrossing achingly familiar to me. The Namesake was many of my worlds: the Calcutta I left behind as a teenager, the Cambridge where I went to college, and the New York where I now live. Jhumpa’s New York is not the immigrant communities of Little India or Jackson Heights but the New York of lofts, Ivy League bonding, art galleries, political marches, book openings, country weekends in Maine with WASPy friends, a deeply cosmopolitan place with its own images and manners. This was the place I had lived in since 1978; this is the city where I learned how to see.

I had hovered at the edges of the photography world for years, looking at everything from the older masters like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and William Eggleston to the younger New York photographers like Lois Conner, Mitch Epstein, Adam Bartos, and Nan Goldin. Their visual rigor and devotion to the frame trained my eyes. This later became a large part of my enjoyment and practice as film director.

Yet I never felt the pull to shoot a film in New York until I read Jhumpa’s beautiful story. William Thackeray writes in Vanity Fair, “The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” New York was my looking glass and in making The Namesake, I could show the world the ease and confidence of the new South Asian cool in the city, how the Desi demi-monde really lived here—a New York that rarely makes its way onto the screen. In her novel Jhumpa managed to tie this world seamlessly, and with incredible specificity and intimacy, to Calcutta. Not only to contemporary Kolkata, but also to the Calcutta of my own youth. I spent all my summers, from childhood through college, living with a favorite uncle on Cornfield Road, sleeping late, reading, playing cricket in the local maidan, and eventually discovering political street theater there. This was the seed of what later became making film.

It was fitting to return to the city more than thirty later, in part to pay homage to what I loved about Calcutta. This is a city where culture is worshiped and religion takes a backseat to communism, but also where the goddess Durga presides wide-angle photograph of a laborer carting an adorned Goddess Saraswati across a Calcutta flyover, he gave me the key to include her in The Namesake. Thus the goddess of music hovered over Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol in the film, appearing inexplicably every now and then to bless our tale.

Creative expression is the bread and butter of almost every Bengali, so in Calcutta nearly everybody has a double or triple life. When I was casting The Namesake, I attended a symposium of Tagore plays at the Rabindra Bhavan and noticed a particular actor. He turned out to be a successful lawyer who from 9:00 to 6:00 practiced labor law, then performed onstage until midnight. When I asked him how he managed, he said robustly, “It is my oxygen!”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt these two great cities of the world, New York and Calcutta, mirrored each other in specific ways. The massive steel of the Howrah Bridge, like an iconic sash across the Ganges, was echoed in the light grace of the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River outside my window. I scouted a hospital on Roosevelt Island and felt that it might easily have been a hospital in Calcutta. Ashima could give birth to Gogol here, I thought, she could look out of the window, and in the girders of the Queensboro Bridge, the shake and hum of traffic above and below, would lie the ghost of the Howrah. That is, after all, the state of being of many of us who live between worlds.

Below and above ground, both cities are stitched by rails; the tram tracks of Calcutta, the elevated trains of New York, the subways of both. When alerted by the clang and rattle of the Calcutta tram crossing the main thoroughfare of Chowringhee, I would look across the road to see five planes of faces and cars and bustling buses, eight planes of action crisscrossing each other kaleidoscopically. I could see directly through the tram’s windows on Rash Behari Avenue to the shops and the shoppers of Gol Park on the other side, creating wide picture window frames in the manner of Robert Frank’s classic photograph. Just like my morning on the subway platforms of New York city, with passengers across the platform pick up, wiping the slate clean like a screenwipe.

I would shoot these two cities as if they were one. The textures and graffiti, the salaam to both politics and art—these were the gods of both cities. In both you have the frayed and layered posters on the lampposts and walls, scaffoldings of steel in one, of bamboo in the other. Gradually I began to see that the film would be about movement and crossing and goings of an immigrant, the neutered spaces airports and suitcases, would be the threads of the film, uniting its tapestry, covering thirty years in the Ganguli family’s life between New York and Calcutta.

All this was in novel an understated way, but film would be a visual realization of that state. The film would begin on a slightly stylized note, following Ashoke Ganguli’s trunk gliding through Howrah Station on a coolie’s head, the focus remaining on the suitcase as it made its journey into the train carrying Ashoke into his future in America. In her Derry Moore’s elegiac portrait of the young princess of Burdwan standing in her wrought-iron balcony in late evening light, I saw longing and stillness of his bride, Ashima, who stepped into her husband’s America-made shoes, leaving her wed of family and friends behind her, irrevocably changing her life.

When shooting the scene in Kennedy Airport of the time Ashima sees Ashoke alive, I was guided by the master Garry Winogrand’s photographs in his book Arrivals and Departures to find secrets in the reflecting floors of airport, where human being stand in endless queues linked in anonymity, like journeying lemmings. When shooting Tabu as Ashima in Kolkata, I posed her against the gleaming teak doors of Deb Bari on Amherst Street and only months later saw in the frame echoes Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “The Daydream,” in which a young Mexican woman dreams, leaning against a similar stairwell. And sometimes the inspiration was unexpected: in Mitch Epstein’s untitled picture made in New York City, the strong graphic of a man on an elevator against a monochromatic red wall once again brought Rothko to mind, and gave me the courage to use a core of strong color in New York suburbia.

The Namesake was also my chance to return the tribute to the great Bengali filmmakers and artistes who had nourished me for those twelve summers and beyond. In 1984, the moment I finished my first documentary, I took the reel under my arm, hauled a projector with the other, and climbed the wooden stairs to Satyajit Ray’s home on Bishop Lefroy Road to show him the film. I walked into a scene that could well have been from one of his films: a soiree of great-looking Bengali literati in his study, one reading aloud a brilliant review of his work from Sight and Sound fifteen years ago, as the bemused master listened, drawing all the time on a paper resting on his knees.

That was the first of many meeting with the great filmmaker. In distilling the love story between Ashoke and Ashima in The Namesake, it was the sweetness and charm of Apu’s love for his sudden bride, Aparna, in Apur Sansar that I aspired to. One of my great regrets was not knowing the extraordinary Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, whose unabashed emotion and Soviet zeal kept me on course through my own shooting in his city. The luminosity of the great Bengali actresses of yore, Supriya Devi (Ashima’s grandmother in the film) and Madhabi Mukherjee; the deadly intellectual good looks of the bespectacled Niranjan Ray; the fire in the songs of Nazrul; the confident line and spare color of Jamini Roy—to each of these teachers I bowed in namaskar.

And thus the story possessed me, and the wonderful band of my filmmaking family began clearing the path to make the film happen. Then, as the lady shopkeeper in Kampala proclaims on her storefront sign, “In My Own Way, Ltd.,” I set out make my first Bengali film in America.

Back of The Book
“Gradually I began to see that the film would be about movement and crossings. The bridges, the trains, the airplanes, the constant comings and goings of an immigrant, the neutered spaces of airports and suitcases, would be the threads of the film, uniting its tapestry that covers thirty years in the Ganguli family’s life between New York and Calcutta. In both you have the frayed and layered posters on the lampposts and walls, scaffoldings of steel in one, of bamboo in other. I would shoot these two cities as if they were one. The textures and graffiti, the salaam to both politics and art—these the gods of both cities.”

Contents
Writing and film (Jhumpa Lahiri)4
Photographs as inspiration (Mira Nair)10
About the contributors138
Photo credits142
Movie credits143

The Namesake

Item Code:
IDL123
Cover:
Paperback
Publisher:
Newmarket Press
ISBN:
9781557047311
Size:
10.0” X 7.0”
Pages:
144 (Illustrated Throughout In B/W and color
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$24.00
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From The Jacket
A Portrait of the Film by Mira Nair Based on the Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri Introductions by Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri

This exclusive companion to The Namesake features a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri about the experience of seeing her novel “transposed” into film, an essay by acclaimed director Mira Nair about the critical influence of photographers on the scene during production in New York and Calcutta.

Brilliantly illuminating the immigrant experience and the tangled ties between generations, The Namesake follows the Ganguli family, whose move from Calcutta to New York evokes a lifelong balancing act to adapt to a new world while remembering the old. The parents, Ashoke and Ashima, long for the family and culture they left behind in India, while their children, Gogol and Sonia, struggle to find an identity without losing their heritage.

Interspersed with excerpts from the bestselling novel, this moviebook offers an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the transformation of this moving story from page to screen.

Mira Nair is the internationally acclaimed director of Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and Hysterical Blindness.

Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, has been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.

About the Author
The Namesake began as a note to myself, casually jotted down at some point in may twenties, consisting of the phrase “a boy named gogol.”

For the next five years those four words lay dormant in my notebook, yielding nothing. The boy named Gogol was literally so: a childhood friend and neighbor of one of my Calcutta cousins. In the summer of 1992 I went to India and stayed a while with my aunt and uncle and cousin in the neighborhood of Jadavpur. During that time I often heard the name Gogol called out from window to window, and from rooftop to rooftop—my cousin inviting Gogol to play, Gogol’s mother summoning him inside for dinner.

I must have seen, young Gogol when he would over to my cousin’s house, or as the two boys whacked cricket balls on the ground outside, but what accompanied me back to America at the end of that summer was simply and persistently a name. I remember thinking that Gogol was an unusual, somewhat whimsical name for a Bengali boy, but I was also aware that to people in Calcutta it was unquestioned, understood. Had my cousin’s friend grown up in America, that name, I knew, would most certainly have been questioned, would not have been understood in the same way.

And so the story took root. I started the first draft in 1997. It was neither a smooth nor a continuous journey, derailed by doubt, despair, and detours into two other eventually abandoned novels. I thought I had abandoned The Namesake, too, but after a long hiatus I finished the book in late zooz. When it was published, in the autumn of the following year, I was no longer connected to the novel either emotionally or imaginatively. Through I read from its pages and talked about it during my book tour, the creative journey had ended, and I had abandoned Gogol, with better conscience this time, for good.

By spring 2004 I was working on a new book and pregnant with my second child. It was then that I met with Mira Nair, and learned that she wanted a body named Gogol to be the subject of her next film. I had met Mira only once before, and thought I counted myself among her many admirers, technically we were all but strangers. But as I set talking to her in her office, I felt that we had known each other for years. I sensed that Gogol had possessed her as he had once possessed me, and I also sensed that she was about to do something extraordinary. In the course of that conversation The Namesake passed from my hands to hers, and I stepped back, as a parent steps back so that might discover a piece of the world on his or her own terms.

For the next several months I occupied a parentlike seat along the shore, at once watchful and detached, while Mira swan in open waters. From time to time she would disappear beneath the surface, out of my sight, and then I would get an exited phone call or an e-mail announcing that she had secured the budget, that she had found a distributor, that the screenplay was ready, that casting had begun. I had heard of novels being optioned for cinema and nothing happening for decades, if never. But less than a year after our initial meeting, not long after my daughter was born, Mira had moved several mountains and was family ready to shoot the film.

She had convinced my family to play extras in one scene, and so very early one morning my parents, sister, children, and I all piled into a van bound for Eastchester, New York. It is fairly common in New York City, where I live, to witness a film or television program being made on the streets. But apart from the occasional rubbernecking, I had never visited a movie set. I had certainly never stepped into a trailer and had my hair and face transformed for the camera. More important, I had never understood or appreciated the massive effort and apparatus required for a two-minute scene in a film. There were people to work the camera and lights, people to ferry the props on and off the set, people to bring and adjust and take away costumes, people to mark the floor with tape so that the actors knew where to stand. It was one of the most complicated and exhilarating dances I’ve ever witnessed. And how strange and wonderful to watch the story I had invented, alone and over the course of so many years, being collectively wrestled with anew.

At the center of this creative storm was Mira. Unlike me when I write, she was not locked up in a silent room, jolted from concentration by a mere telephone’s ring. She treated the whole day as if it were an enormous party she were hosting, greeting my family with her infectious smile when we arrived, seeing to it that we were comfortable, making sure we’d had enough lunch. She was also present to the details of the set in never way, attuned to each piece of the jigsaw puzzle, at one point calming me down about my (excessive, I thought) hairstyle and instructing the woman in the trailer to flatten my curls. Miraculously, in spite of all this she was utterly focused, in a world of her own making, and making the world of the Namesake her own.

People Talk About Immigrants as Being Displaced. I prefer the word “transposed,” used in music to describe shifting to a different key. That is what happens when a person leaves one homeland for another, and that is what happened as The Namesake made its voyage from paper to film. Much like the characters I write about, the story, on-screen, both is and is not itself. Its essence remains, but it inhabits a different realm, and must, like a transposed piece of music, conform to a different set rules. Books are earthbound entities, ordinary physical objects we hold in our hands and read when we have the time. Film, on the other hand, seems more ethereal, commanding our attention from start to finish, passing before our eyes quite literally like a dream. Movies also occupy a much more public place than novels do. They are publicly created, publicly consumed. But Mira has woven certain strands into the screen that only my family and I can fully appreciate, so that the film remains, for me, a deeply personal experience.

I real like my nuclear family in America and my extended family in India are separated by about eight thousand miles. But Mira binds us together, in the form of extras embedded in numerous scenes. My daughter, Noor, plays the part of Gogol’s sister, Sonia, receiving her annaprasan, when Bengali babies are given their first taste of solid food. Noor’s real annaprasan took place just a few weeks after Mira filmed that scene, and mysteriously, maddeningly, our video camera refused to refused to function during the ceremony. As a result, the only footage of Noor’s first meal—albeit an ersatz one—is thanks, most serendipitously, to Mira and her sublime cameraman, Fred Elmes.

The detail that touches me most has to do with a few pictures within this picture. Like Ashima’s father in The Namesake, my mother’s father was a painter. When Mira, in the course of her research, to my parents’ home in Rhode Island, she saw some of my grandfather’s paintings and asked to borrow them for the set of the film. My grandfather (who happened also to be great lover of the movies) never had the pleasure of knowing that people around the world see his watercolors one day. But Mira has done this, too.

Like immigrants who always carry two (or more) places in their hearts, The Namesake now lives and breathes in two separate spheres. The changes Mira has introduced are subtle. The timeline has been moved forward slightly, and instead of the anonymous New England town I write about, Mira place the Ganguli family somewhere outside New York. But these are particulars; the song remains the same. Thanks to Mira’s passion for a boy named Gogol, I will never thinks of The Namesake as belonging exclusively to me, but as a story we were both meant to tell. In my mind this is not a loss, but pure gain. To have someone as devoted and as gifted as Mira reinvent my novel, to watch her guide it safely and exquisitely into the magical arena of the motion picture, has been a humbling and thrilling passage. Together we have arrived at the closest I have felt to artistic collaboration and, most precious of all, an indelible friendship.

About The Author
If it weren’t for Photography, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. Every film I make is fueled by photographs. Sometimes it is a particular image of a photographer, sometimes it is what have learned by seeing the world through his or her eyes. Either way, photographs have always helped me crystallize the visual style of the film I’m about to make.

As I prepared to make a film of The Namesake, I had an idea for a frame: an image of a dusky Bengali beauty against a Mark Rothko painting in a sleek Madison Avenue space. Then, looking through a book of photographs by Raghubir Singh from the 1980s I came across a startling image of a red T-shirt drying on a flaking Calcutta ironwork railing, decaying Edwardian columns looming in the background. In its rich swath of color amid the layering of centuries, I realized that Rothko was alive and well in modern-day Calcutta. Raghubir’s photograph was among the first sings for me that a film of The Namesake could be made in an austere photographic style. With the great cinematographer Fred Elmes by my side, we conceived of each scene as a series of wide-angle shots, “democratic frames” within which the actors, not the camera, would move in a choreographed swirl.

The Namesake, for me, was inspired by grief. I had lost a beloved without warning, and as is our custom, we had to bury her the next day, in a bitterly cold field under yet-strewn skies near Newark Airport. This was our Ammy, who had spent her entire life in the red earth of East Africa, now being laid to rest under the icy glare of snow, very far from what she and we, her family, on a plane reading The Namesake. I had bought the novel months before in our local neighborhood bookstore, The Labyrinth, where my family spends many a desultory afternoon.

Now the book became a comfort, a source of real solace as I tried making sense of the finality of loss. Jhumpa’s writing distilled the nature of grief, the loss of a parent in a country that is not fully home, taking readers through a world of crisscrossing achingly familiar to me. The Namesake was many of my worlds: the Calcutta I left behind as a teenager, the Cambridge where I went to college, and the New York where I now live. Jhumpa’s New York is not the immigrant communities of Little India or Jackson Heights but the New York of lofts, Ivy League bonding, art galleries, political marches, book openings, country weekends in Maine with WASPy friends, a deeply cosmopolitan place with its own images and manners. This was the place I had lived in since 1978; this is the city where I learned how to see.

I had hovered at the edges of the photography world for years, looking at everything from the older masters like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and William Eggleston to the younger New York photographers like Lois Conner, Mitch Epstein, Adam Bartos, and Nan Goldin. Their visual rigor and devotion to the frame trained my eyes. This later became a large part of my enjoyment and practice as film director.

Yet I never felt the pull to shoot a film in New York until I read Jhumpa’s beautiful story. William Thackeray writes in Vanity Fair, “The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” New York was my looking glass and in making The Namesake, I could show the world the ease and confidence of the new South Asian cool in the city, how the Desi demi-monde really lived here—a New York that rarely makes its way onto the screen. In her novel Jhumpa managed to tie this world seamlessly, and with incredible specificity and intimacy, to Calcutta. Not only to contemporary Kolkata, but also to the Calcutta of my own youth. I spent all my summers, from childhood through college, living with a favorite uncle on Cornfield Road, sleeping late, reading, playing cricket in the local maidan, and eventually discovering political street theater there. This was the seed of what later became making film.

It was fitting to return to the city more than thirty later, in part to pay homage to what I loved about Calcutta. This is a city where culture is worshiped and religion takes a backseat to communism, but also where the goddess Durga presides wide-angle photograph of a laborer carting an adorned Goddess Saraswati across a Calcutta flyover, he gave me the key to include her in The Namesake. Thus the goddess of music hovered over Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol in the film, appearing inexplicably every now and then to bless our tale.

Creative expression is the bread and butter of almost every Bengali, so in Calcutta nearly everybody has a double or triple life. When I was casting The Namesake, I attended a symposium of Tagore plays at the Rabindra Bhavan and noticed a particular actor. He turned out to be a successful lawyer who from 9:00 to 6:00 practiced labor law, then performed onstage until midnight. When I asked him how he managed, he said robustly, “It is my oxygen!”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt these two great cities of the world, New York and Calcutta, mirrored each other in specific ways. The massive steel of the Howrah Bridge, like an iconic sash across the Ganges, was echoed in the light grace of the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River outside my window. I scouted a hospital on Roosevelt Island and felt that it might easily have been a hospital in Calcutta. Ashima could give birth to Gogol here, I thought, she could look out of the window, and in the girders of the Queensboro Bridge, the shake and hum of traffic above and below, would lie the ghost of the Howrah. That is, after all, the state of being of many of us who live between worlds.

Below and above ground, both cities are stitched by rails; the tram tracks of Calcutta, the elevated trains of New York, the subways of both. When alerted by the clang and rattle of the Calcutta tram crossing the main thoroughfare of Chowringhee, I would look across the road to see five planes of faces and cars and bustling buses, eight planes of action crisscrossing each other kaleidoscopically. I could see directly through the tram’s windows on Rash Behari Avenue to the shops and the shoppers of Gol Park on the other side, creating wide picture window frames in the manner of Robert Frank’s classic photograph. Just like my morning on the subway platforms of New York city, with passengers across the platform pick up, wiping the slate clean like a screenwipe.

I would shoot these two cities as if they were one. The textures and graffiti, the salaam to both politics and art—these were the gods of both cities. In both you have the frayed and layered posters on the lampposts and walls, scaffoldings of steel in one, of bamboo in the other. Gradually I began to see that the film would be about movement and crossing and goings of an immigrant, the neutered spaces airports and suitcases, would be the threads of the film, uniting its tapestry, covering thirty years in the Ganguli family’s life between New York and Calcutta.

All this was in novel an understated way, but film would be a visual realization of that state. The film would begin on a slightly stylized note, following Ashoke Ganguli’s trunk gliding through Howrah Station on a coolie’s head, the focus remaining on the suitcase as it made its journey into the train carrying Ashoke into his future in America. In her Derry Moore’s elegiac portrait of the young princess of Burdwan standing in her wrought-iron balcony in late evening light, I saw longing and stillness of his bride, Ashima, who stepped into her husband’s America-made shoes, leaving her wed of family and friends behind her, irrevocably changing her life.

When shooting the scene in Kennedy Airport of the time Ashima sees Ashoke alive, I was guided by the master Garry Winogrand’s photographs in his book Arrivals and Departures to find secrets in the reflecting floors of airport, where human being stand in endless queues linked in anonymity, like journeying lemmings. When shooting Tabu as Ashima in Kolkata, I posed her against the gleaming teak doors of Deb Bari on Amherst Street and only months later saw in the frame echoes Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “The Daydream,” in which a young Mexican woman dreams, leaning against a similar stairwell. And sometimes the inspiration was unexpected: in Mitch Epstein’s untitled picture made in New York City, the strong graphic of a man on an elevator against a monochromatic red wall once again brought Rothko to mind, and gave me the courage to use a core of strong color in New York suburbia.

The Namesake was also my chance to return the tribute to the great Bengali filmmakers and artistes who had nourished me for those twelve summers and beyond. In 1984, the moment I finished my first documentary, I took the reel under my arm, hauled a projector with the other, and climbed the wooden stairs to Satyajit Ray’s home on Bishop Lefroy Road to show him the film. I walked into a scene that could well have been from one of his films: a soiree of great-looking Bengali literati in his study, one reading aloud a brilliant review of his work from Sight and Sound fifteen years ago, as the bemused master listened, drawing all the time on a paper resting on his knees.

That was the first of many meeting with the great filmmaker. In distilling the love story between Ashoke and Ashima in The Namesake, it was the sweetness and charm of Apu’s love for his sudden bride, Aparna, in Apur Sansar that I aspired to. One of my great regrets was not knowing the extraordinary Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, whose unabashed emotion and Soviet zeal kept me on course through my own shooting in his city. The luminosity of the great Bengali actresses of yore, Supriya Devi (Ashima’s grandmother in the film) and Madhabi Mukherjee; the deadly intellectual good looks of the bespectacled Niranjan Ray; the fire in the songs of Nazrul; the confident line and spare color of Jamini Roy—to each of these teachers I bowed in namaskar.

And thus the story possessed me, and the wonderful band of my filmmaking family began clearing the path to make the film happen. Then, as the lady shopkeeper in Kampala proclaims on her storefront sign, “In My Own Way, Ltd.,” I set out make my first Bengali film in America.

Back of The Book
“Gradually I began to see that the film would be about movement and crossings. The bridges, the trains, the airplanes, the constant comings and goings of an immigrant, the neutered spaces of airports and suitcases, would be the threads of the film, uniting its tapestry that covers thirty years in the Ganguli family’s life between New York and Calcutta. In both you have the frayed and layered posters on the lampposts and walls, scaffoldings of steel in one, of bamboo in other. I would shoot these two cities as if they were one. The textures and graffiti, the salaam to both politics and art—these the gods of both cities.”

Contents
Writing and film (Jhumpa Lahiri)4
Photographs as inspiration (Mira Nair)10
About the contributors138
Photo credits142
Movie credits143
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