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Irrfan In The Namesake: The Art Of Body Language

The first time we really see him smile with all his teeth, his hands are in front of him, his fingers touching delicately as if protecting him from his own vulnerability
Irrfan In The Namesake: The Art Of Body Language

  • Meenakshi D Sivan

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 05.30 AM, May 16, 2021

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There are two types of Bengali uncles that you might encounter. The first is the loudmouth, live-life-to-the-fullest kind (like Bhaskor Banerjee in Piku) and the second is the reserved, quiet type whose emotions don’t betray him (like Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake). Out of the two, playing the quiet variety is much harder for the simple reason that a large amount of emotional information has to be relayed with utmost subtlety. As an actor, Irrfan knew that the key to the subtlety is through body language. Let’s have a look at his character Ashoke in The Namesake.

In a character’s journey, his or her body language changes over time due to factors like habits, their physical ailments and their emotional baggage. Let’s break it down from the start. In the very first scene itself, we see Ashok as a small shrunken man, not because of his size but because of his demeanour. He is humbled, with curiosity in his eyes and a slight spring in his step. Even though he seems shy, his eyes light up when the man on the train tells him to explore the world. Though he doesn’t agree with the idea, he is definitely intrigued by it. This intrigue translates to a full-blown life purpose after the train leaves Ashoke injured and we find out in a succeeding scene that he is settled in USA. He has come to India to see Ashima, a prospective bride.

In this scene, Ashoke doesn’t have a single dialogue, being the shy man he is. But his interest in Ashima is easily conveyed. As Ashima comes forward and touches the feet of the elders, he tries to catch a quick glimpse of her but turns away just as discreetly in the fear of being caught. As his father talks about the perils of living abroad to Ashima, Ashoke’s face turns pale. He feels that Ashima might reject him due to these reasons, but the colour soon returns to his face when he hears that the cheeky woman before him has agreed to be his bride and a controlled smirk comes onto his face.

As we get to know Ashoke more and more as a young man, we see that though there is humility in his posture, his back is always straight. When he speaks, his arms move freely and imposingly. This posture remains throughout his younger years, when his children are still little. We also know that he smokes, which will eventually be relevant.

Fast forward to a decade or so later and Ashoke has visibly aged. The first thing we realise is that his back is noticeably bent, his stomach is slowly starting to show, and this is making him slouch ever so slightly. When he goes to Gogol, his son’s room to give him a graduation present, he seems nervous. His licking of lips gives away his nervousness, the licking that has replaced the gulp from his younger years as smoking has resulted in dry lips (especially in high-stress situations). There is great tension between his son and himself. Hence, his posture is more guarded and reserved though he is trying to be cool and open at the same time.

Moving on, there is the iconic scene where he is walking with Ashima in the gardens of Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, and they have a heart-warmingly sweet moment. That is the first time we really see him smile with all his teeth, his hands in front of him, his fingers touching delicately as if protecting him from his own vulnerability.

In a succeeding scene, we notice that he has developed bow legs and the specific limp he walks with is a sign of a knee problem. His body is slowly deteriorating. In the next important scene, Gogol tells his father that he has decided to change his name to Nikhil. Ashima tries to dissuade her son but Ashoke knows that his mind is made up and resistance will only push him further away. However, Ashoke can’t help expressing how upset he is. He picks up his cigarettes and sticks his tongue in his cheek as he steps out, a discomfort in his mouth from something he wanted to say but did not. At this point, when the shot is taken from the behind, his face is in the dark, his back is more bent than ever and he is smoking anxiously, upset about his son’s decision.

The next important scene happens a few years later when Nikhil is much older. He has a dream job and a white girlfriend his parents do not approve of, but welcome to their house as warmly as they can. When we see Ashoke now in his final Bengali uncle form, he looks frailer than ever. In spite of being instructed not to, Maxine, Nikhil’s girlfriend, gives Ashoke a kiss on his cheek. Ashoke gets shocked by the sudden form of contact. His body jitters slightly and he licks his lips before looking up at his family, who have witnessed this embarrassing ordeal. After an awkward lunch, Ashoke asks Nikhil to go with him to get some ice cream. Maxine offers to go with them but Ashoke suggests she stay behind with Ashima. He raises his voice rather alarmingly because he’s trying to be persuasive, and when a quiet man raises his voice, people take notice. Ashoke becomes strongly vulnerable for the first time in the next scene when he tells his son about the night of the train accident and how Gogol, the writer, changed his life. Here, all we notice is his eyes, which do all the talking.

Now we come to one of the most critical and well-acted scenes of the film. Ashoke has moved to Cleveland after setting up the house for Ashima and having a heart-to-heart conversation with his son. One day Ashima gets a call from Ashoke, who seems sweaty and tense, though his personality doesn’t betray his pain. He licks his lips again nervously as he lies to Ashima about stomach issues. When Ashima sounds worried, Ashok pulls himself together for a moment and asks her not to worry in the sweetest way possible. We don’t realise it at this very moment, but the fact is Ashoke is telling Ashima the name of the hospital because he anticipates that something might go wrong. Of course, soon after this Ashima experiences the intense pain of losing her husband. After this, we experience Ashoke mainly through his son’s memories and sometimes through Ashima’s.

One of the final memories that we see is Gogol’s memory of his father leaving his room after giving him Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat as a graduation gift. That moment, which earlier felt like an awkward encounter to Gogol, now comes back to him as a beautiful memory (and our memories are often rosier than life).

Irrfan Khan’s performance as Ashoke in this film captures the beauty of the middle class Bengali man trying to earn and trying to keep his family together. At the same time, he creates the perfect character to be remembered by when being nostalgic about times being gone by.

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