Mississippi Masala: Starring Denzel Washington

Staying away from Hollywood, Mira Nair travels the world to raise money for her films.

Mississippi Masala was made for $7 million, financed by British TV’s Channel 4 and other sources. More original than Salaam Bombay!, the film introduced a new subject, the transplanted Indian population in the South, contributing to the relevant issue of what is home.

The story begins in Uganda, in 1972, when the monstrous Idi Amin expelled Indians from the country. Jay (Roshan Seth), a prominent lawyer in Uganda, his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury)and are forced to leave. Jay is told by his black nationalist friend: “Africa is for Africans.” His loss is visually accentuated by the lushness of the African countryside and the vibrancy of its colors–a staple of Nair’s work.

Eighteen years later, Jay and his family are trapped in a deadend roadside motel business in the Deep South. The Indian enclave get along with their black neighbors, but from afar, looking down on them. The two communities are linked–both are dislocated, both cling to their past, both search for a future, both are mistreated by white America, and members in each group long to go back to Africa. Yet the two groups are unaware of their similarities, seeing only their differences.

A furor erupts when Mina falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a black who runs a carpet-cleaning business. Their romance becomes the film’s Romeo and Juliet centerpiece, overshadowing the more interesting context. Indeed, Nair neglects broader issues–there’s no real sense of how the exiled Indians mix with each other or with the black community. Nair also lacks the skills to tell a hot-spiced romance (masala is an Indian word for a mix of hot spices), though despite awkward mise-en-scene, the film remains engaging due to its subject matter.

When the affair is disclosed, it challenges the biases and prejudices of both Indian and black communities; up until then, the Indians co-existed in superficial harmony with the blacks. Nair, however, doesn’t deal with an obvious irony: Many Indians grew up in Uganda and had no contact with India but they still identify themselves as Indian. In Mississippi, they are exiles twice removed–their exile from a homeland they never really knew should connect them to the black people. Yet a color-caste system is evident: Lighter-skinned than the blacks, the Indians abhor the notion of interracial romance. Jay’s resentment of Demetrius goes back to a painful split from his best friend in Uganda. It takes one more visit for Jay to finally release himself from inner exile.

Unlike Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which also dealt with interracial romance, Nair’s treatment is non-judgmental, taking neither a moral ground nor faulting any group with racism. The soundtrack, a mixture of African, Indian and blues music, reinforces the film’s title and themes. Released at a time when national boundaries in Europe and other regions were falling apart and the definition of home changing, Mississippi Masala was a timely movie about displacement, distorted memories, and frail identities. Nair seems to imply that, despite separatism, the U.S. still remains one of the few societies where different races can really co-exist.