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Culture Clash

February 22, 2010

by John Farr

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Hester Street (1975)


After emigrating from Russia in the late 1800s, Jewish immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) has shed all the outer signs of his heritage, including side locks and traditional clothing, and settled into a bustling, profitable life on New York’s Lower East Side. So he is less than thrilled when his wife Giti (Carol Kane) joins him five years later, and seems unwilling to relinquish her Old World values. She, in turn, is dismayed by the profound change that has taken place in Jake.


A low-key, moving story about the conflict between tradition and modernity as it is played out in the confines of a marriage, Silver’s “Hester Street” is a lovely period piece that earned newcomer Kane an Oscar nomination for her sensitive portrayal of Giti, who must cope not only with Jake’s cultural transformation, but the fact of his new lover as well. Silver went on to become a busy movie director, but her authentic evocation of a woman’s struggles in turn-of-the-century New York in this quietly assured debut remains her finest work to date. Made on a modest budget, “Hester Street” has a homemade feel that perfectly suits its subject.

The Namesake (2007)


After an arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) moves with his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York City in hopes of a bright future as an engineer. The adjustment is hard on Ashima, a homesick Hindi speaker only barely fluent in English, but they persevere. Years later, their Americanized teenage children Sonia (Sahira Nair) and eldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) present a wholly new challenge, as they resent their parents’ conservative values and seem disconnected from their Indian heritage. But family ties prove hard to break.


Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair’s chronicle of the Indian-American immigrant experience is sensitive, intelligent, and surprisingly true-to-life, especially as it focuses on the rebellious Gogol’s conflicted relationship with Ashoke, whom he neither respects nor seems willing to understand. When he acquires a perky WASP girlfriend at Yale, Gogol finds himself poised between the world he wants to dissociate from (old India) and the one he feels he belongs to (mainstream America). Wisdom arrives, as it often does, in the form of a crisis, and Nair makes sure we earn the catharsis her excellent young actor eventually undergoes.

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