What is in a name? What is the meaning behind the identity given to us by our parents? These may be questions that many of us ask ourselves at least once in our lives, even if the answer is inconclusive. These are the very questions Gogol Ganguli tries to answer in “The Namesake,” a movie based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel.

The leading man on screen is Kal Penn. One of the hottest actors in Hollywood, Penn has also appeared in movies such as “Epic Movie,” “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and the upcoming movie “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” (in theaters April 25). With such an extensive resum and great acting ability, it is no wonder that Penn was chosen to star in this movie, playing a role very different from his previous characters.

Penn plays the role of Gogol Ganguli, a young man searching for his identity. As a teenager, he rebels, smoking a little marijuana and constantly undermining his parents. One day in class, his English professor discusses the plight of one of the great Russian authors, Nikolai Gogol, characterized as being a hypochondriac, paranoid, friendless and without a family, inevitably dying due to slow suicide by way of starvation.

It is not astonishing that Gogol is upset upon learning such information, especially because this genius but deeply disturbed writer is his namesake. This moment impacts him, and when he is of age, he changes his name to Nikil. Although this may seem more comfortable for him, for purposes such as signing official documents or merely having his name on his bachelor’s degree, Gogol fails to realize the significance of his name.

Many times, the problem for Gogol lies in the fact that he has grown up in America has completely grasped American culture but overlooks his parents’ Indian culture. Though they are living under the same roof, many times the cultural differences cause a larger gap to form between them. As Gogol grows older, he continues to separate himself from his family. Yet, one day, Gogol’s father, Ashoke, finally gives Gogol the answer to his never-ending question, “Why?”

The answer is overwhelming to Gogol, as he discovers that his name was not given to him superficially. In actuality, it is a reminder for his father of the miracle that every day has been for him since. Before Gogol, Ashoke was merely passively living life. He never tried to explore; he never thought of leaving his comfort zone. However, upon Gogol’s birth, Ashoke has been able to truly experience what life has to offer.

“The Namesake” is a story about the struggle Gogol goes through to balance his Indian heritage and American culture. In the beginning, he totally embraces American culture; many times, especially as a child, that was the only way to fit in. However, as he matures and becomes aware of the deeper meaning behind his name, he begins to appreciate and understand his parents. Through his name, Gogol is able to bond with the people around him, able to find love and able to identify who he is. He is not only an architect, a son, a brother and a husband. He is a symbol of life, not only to his father, but also to himself. By acknowledging the power behind his name, Gogol is able to find comfort within himself.

Now, maybe some of us do not have a powerful story behind the origin of our names. Some of us could have been named something creative because our parents were adventurous; some of us could have been given our specific names because of the hottest celebrity of the particular time. Whatever the story is behind your name, “The Namesake” teaches the lesson that we should be aware of the meaning behind our names and find pride within them because it is through our names that we find strength and empowerment to be the individuals we are each meant to be.

Massie is a member of the class of 2011.

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