RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
"The Namesake" opens in theatres today. The movie is based on the bestselling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's a love story, a coming to America story, a going back to India story. And that's something director Mira Nair knows about.
She was born in India and now lives in New York. Her first film made in this country was "Mississippi Masala," and that's a love story set in a community of exiled Indians managing motels in the Deep South.
At the heart of this movie, "The Namesake," is a name, Gogol, after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Here, the father starts to explain to his son why he burdened him with the name of his favorite writer.
(Soundbite from movie, "The Namesake")
Mr. IRFAN KHAN (Actor): (As Ashoke Ganguli): I kept hearing Ghosh's voice in my head. That gave (unintelligible). Lead the world. You will never be greedy. That is how I came to America and you got your name.
MONTAGNE: That was Bollywood star Irfan Khan playing the father. The son, Gogol, is played by the actor Kal Penn - quite a departure from his best-known role in the stoner comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."
Director Mira Nair joined us in our studio here at NPR West, and Kal Penn joined us on the line from Shreveport, Louisiana, where, Kal Penn, you're filming your latest movie?
Mr. KAL PENN (Actor): Yes, that's right. It's the sequel to "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."
MONTAGNE: Oh, good morning to both of you.
Mr. PENN: Good morning.
Ms. MIRA NAIR (Director, "The Namesake"): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: I'm going to begin with you, Mira Nair, and ask you: The film is based on a novel that spans 30 years and two continents, can you distill for us the main threads of the story?
Ms. NAIR: Well, the film is about Ashoke and Ashima, two Bengali young people in Calcutta who marry as strangers and come to New York City in the '70s to begin their lives together and have children. The son is named Gogol. The son does not know the significance of his name and lives an American life where he learns to be American and not Indian-American.
And the conflict between the parents and the relationship between the parents and children as they negotiate their way living between America and Calcutta.
MONTAGNE: And a question to you, Kal Penn. I understand that you actually lobbied Mira Nair to get the role.
Mr. PENN: Yes. I'd read the book a couple of years before and John Cho, a friend of mine who plays Harold in "Harold & Kumar," actually recommended the book. As soon as I read it, we talked about trying to get the rights. We said to each other if we - we placed a call to our respective lawyers and in the interim said, you know, we don't know anybody other than Mira Nair who could do justice to the intimacy of the novel. And then we got the phone call back saying you can't have the rights; Mira Nair beat you to it.
So then I began this very aggressive campaign of having agents and managers and phone calls placed to her office.
Mr. NAIR: But none more effective than a 15-year-old boy and his best friend.
Mr. PENN: Exactly. Exactly.
Mr. NAIR: My son took me by the hand and led me to Kal Penn on the Internet. So he was a big lobbyist for Kal right in our home every night. You know, he would say, Mama, tell me in the morning it's Kal Penn. And, you know, that has influence.
MONTAGNE: But, you know, I heard on this sort of same story. Did you indeed write a letter to Mira Nair to the effect that you wanted to become an actor after seeing "Mississippi Masala"?
Mr. PENN: I did. I saw "Mississippi Masala" in eighth grade at a random, you know, theater inside of a mall in New Jersey with my parents and a cousin of mine. And until that point, and I didn't realize this until the evening that we saw the film, but until that point, the only images that I saw of people who remotely looked like me where either, you know, white actors in brown face or actors, you know, eating monkey brains like "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." And you'd see all this absurd imagery that you don't realize until you see something positive and reflective, which Mississippi Masala was. It was a very multidimensional story. And that really moved me and it really motivated me to become an actor.
MONTAGNE: In "The Namesake," Gogol Ganguli, decides to change his name as a young man. In fact, his name is quite an issue through his childhood. And there's some parallel with your own life I think because you were born, Kalpen Seresh Modi(ph).
Mr. PENN: Yes, that's right. I actually never changed my name legally. But when I first moved to Los Angeles and started pursuing a career in acting, a couple of friends who are producers and executives had suggested coming up with a screen name. And half the reasons were given were just sort of, you know, well Whoopi Goldberg isn't really Whoopi Goldberg. Winona Rider is not Winona Rider. Everyone's got something catchier to come up with.
And then the flipside of that was, no, admittedly, we think that you would start getting more work if you had an anglicized name, which I of course didn't really believe. I thought that if type was such an issue, especially racial or ethnic type, that that would get in the way regardless of what the name was. But sort of to prove them wrong I just took my first name and split it in half and put that on my headshots instead of Kalpen Modi. I put Kal Penn and my auditions actually went up. And so I left it on the headshot in order to do what I love.
MONTAGNE: There's one wonderful moment at the beginning of the film when Ashima,, who is at the time a young bride newly arrived in America. In the middle of a gray winter day in an American city, she reaches down and you see her adding to a bowl of Rice Krispies, stirring in chili powder and salted peanuts.
Ms. NAIR: That's right. She's basically making a version of what we would call (foreign language spoken) depending on where you come from. You know, where we - our food is essentially tangy, you know, it has spice and sweet at the same time. And this is street food that she yearned for and, you know, she makes what she can of what she sees. A bit of her world, you know. Which we all have done and we all will continue to do to find our way in a new place.
MONTAGNE: She is the one that is the most between two cultures throughout this movie.
Ms. NAIR: I mean, I think that she remains between two cultures until her children are born, and then her hands are full and their present becomes her present. But definitely I've made the film shooting the two cities of Calcutta and New York as if they were one city. Because that's what it feels like to be between worlds, the kind of in between thing that Ashoke and Ashima feel in this being in New York but thinking of Calcutta.
But as Gogol enters their world, I think the film becomes less nostalgic and much more about the present.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Kal Penn and Mira Nair. Thank you both very much.
Mr. PENN: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Ms. NAIR: It's good to be here.
MONTAGNE: Mira Nair directed "The Namesake." It stars Kal Penn and opens in theatres today. And if you go to npr.org, you can read an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about the day Gogol was born and how he got his name.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.