Being an immigrant is "a perpetual wait, a constant burden ... a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding." -- Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.
Mississippi Masala, the earlier movie by Mira Nair which charts the inheritance of loss (or is it a loss of inheritance?), benefits from a piece of autobiographical detail -- her husband Mahmoud Mamdani is a third-generation Ugandan of Indian 'extraction', deracinated by Idi Amin and thereafter a foreigner in America writing analyses of identity. Mamdani is a decade older than Nair, and that may have made it easier for her to project the expatriation experience onto the father's character (played delicately by Roshan Seth) in Mississippi Masala.
In a brief introduction to the screening I attended, Mira Nair talked about first reading Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake on a plane just after the funeral of her parent. She said she planned the movie "in a fever", dropping various other projects already committed to. While the autobiographical intensity of Roshan and Sharmila's lives in Mississippi Masala was due in great part to it being Mahmoud and Mira's story too, in the case of The Namesake the visiting of the director's own life on the movie has not been as beneficial. Mira's mourning for her parent threatens to overwhelm the other threads of the story, and move the fulcrum of the narrative away from Gogol Ganguli towards his dad and mom, Ashoke and Ashima (played by Irfan Khan and the gorgeous Tabu.) Since most of the melodrama is to be extracted from Ashok's demise, the first third of the movie jerkily presents vignettes from his past life while we wait for him to hurry up and die. Once he has become a photo on the wall and there is not a dry eye in the house, we only have 20 minutes left for Gogol's own story.
Indian audiences used to seeing Irfan Khan as a wag in Hutch ads selling airtime will expect him to spring out of his morgue cooler with the latest model of cellphone -- Be-fiqar reh puttar, socha main aise-hi khallas? No, no, no, no, darrling, abhi to main zinda hoon. (Didn't Gogol's Akakii Akayievich come back to haunt the officials after he died of exposure from losing his overcoat? ) Between cringes at Irfan and Tabu's atrocious accents, Bengali audiences will be suprised to realize Gogol is Feluda's grandson. Calcutta audiences will no doubt be flattered by Nair's contention that it is really a sibling of New York, with brighter colors but a similar bridge. Music lovers will admire Nair's cleverness in strategically positioning soulfully yodeling Baul singers on boats everytime someone's ashes have to be scattered in Ma Ganga. The broad-minded will admire the syncretism of Tabu sporting Rajasthani tribal foot-decorations and a matching heaving choli (to say nothing of Zuleikha's Bengali fishnet legs), wondering where these two were when Mirabai was casting Kama Sutra? Calligraphers will admire the Bangla kana in the credits, as well as the Engo-Bongo titles designed to bring out cultural fusion.
Oh, it has its moments; every expartiate will recognize the aspect of being in that obtuse place where no one can pronounce your name, where you find your past is considered threadbare and your present depends on how you kit yourself out with a new overcoat of belonging, where your descendants have no use for their inheritance.
At last poor Akakii Akakievich breathed his last. They sealed up neither his room nor his effects, because, in the first place, there were no heirs, and, in the second, there was very little inheritance; namely, a bunch of goose-quills, a quire of white official paper, three pairs of socks, two or three buttons which had burst off his trousers, and the “mantle” already known to the reader. To whom all this fell, God knows. I confess that the person who told this tale took no interest in the matter. They carried Akakii Akakievich out, and buried him. And Petersburg was left without Akakii Akakievich, as though he had never lived there. -- Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat.