It is unusual to hear the Queensboro Bridge in New York City and the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India, mentioned in the same breath. But renowned film director Mira Nair has brought them together -- and to much critical acclaim.
Sitting down to talk with ABC's movie critic Joel Siegel about "The Namesake," her new film, Nair describes "the most personal film" she has ever made as "a banquet of the two cities she has grown up in," Kolkata and New York. Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, "The Namesake" follows an Indian family over a span of 30 years as it journeys between two seemingly disparate lands -- India and the United States -- to find common connections between cities many would think shared few similarities.
"The state of the immigrant is one in which you live between worlds," explains Nair.
Shooting for 6½ weeks in New York and two weeks in Kolkata and Agra, India, "The Namesake" frequently floats between these two ostensibly different yet innately similar cities and worlds.
"You feel like Ashima [the mother], when she's looking through her window at the Queensboro Bridge, and it actually takes her to the Howrah Bridge of Calcutta. So, the audience understands what it's like to live between worlds," Nair said.
"The Namesake" tells the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly (played by distinguished Indian film actors Irrfan Khan and Tabu), a Bengali couple who move from their home in Kolkata to follow Ashoke's career to New York City.
We watch as the couple, and Ashima in particular, adjust to a new life in an unfamiliar place, where the weather is bone-chillingly cold and where a precious resource like gas is available 24 hours a day in their stove.
The story then shifts to the story of their American-born son, Gogol, played by Indian-American actor Kal Penn (most famous for his role as a marijuana-smoking suburban thrill-seeker in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"), who through the years becomes increasingly confused by and even disdainful toward his parents and his dual upbringing -- Indian and American -- desperately seeking to be accepted in the country he calls home.
"At its core, this is a film about parents and children and how we negotiate that [relationship], made complicated by the fact that these parents come from another place. But millions of us come from another place. We've all negotiated what it is to feel like an outsider entering something but also what it is to be a child and hopefully a parent," Nair says.
As we see Gogol through the years, he encounters people and events that force him to view his past and his family through different eyes; sometimes in joy -- such as when he sees the Taj Mahal for the first time -- and at times in heart-wrenching scenes of revelation, such as when he learns the poignant story behind his unusual name.
"What I wanted to create in 'The Namesake' was this rhythm between laughter and sorrow," says Nair. "This film is full of moments like that, happy moments but also moments of the abject unpredictability of life."
At its premiere in early March, Nair noticed varied emotional responses to her film. "People were just barely laughing and then audibly sobbing."
When asked what feeling she hoped audiences would come away with after seeing the movie, Nair pauses for a moment, in thought, and then confidently responds: "I would love audiences to feel mindful of their lives. In the living of life, we forget what really matters.
"We have to feel each moment so fully, and we have to be aware of where we come from in order to know where we're going. But mostly, to know where we come from and the people who have made us who we are, because you just never know when it's not going to be that way."