“Mississippi Masala” finds a new audience 30 years later


"Mississippi Masala" finds a new audience 30 years later

They are both lying in their beds with a phone clamped to their ear. His hands play with the hem of his shirt, revealing a soft belly. Hers ran absently through her hair; The camera pans down her legs.

The two characters – Washington’s Demetrius and Choudhury’s Mina – are miles apart in the scene and far from touching. Nonetheless, the suspense is captivating.

“The only thing I keep hearing now is that it’s one of the sexiest movies of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone agrees when it comes to discussing the phone scene.”

Nair’s Mississippi Masala, first released in 1991, became something of a cult classic — but in recent years it’s been difficult to actually find a copy of the film. Now the Criterion Collection has released a 4K digital restoration of the film, overseen by Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also in the midst of a nationwide theatrical release that will introduce it to new audiences across the country.

The premise of “Mississippi Masala” is both simple and complex. At its core, the film is a love story between a young Indian woman who was born in Uganda and an African American carpet cleaner who never left Mississippi. But Nair uses this love story to draw attention to some difficult realities: he points to colorism, racism, anti-blackness, classism, and xenophobia across races, while posing tough questions about humanity and identity.

After all, what does it means to be from one place? What is homeland? What is part of it? what is race Somehow, “Mississippi Masala” delves into all of this—while cleverly avoiding any semblance of preaching.

Mississippi Masala started at Harvard

Nair’s own experiences as a student at Harvard University established the film. Her arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts was her first time leaving India, her home country, and she found herself caught between the black and white communities at the school. They both let her in, but she felt the boundaries between the two. This is how the idea behind “Mississippi Masala” came about.

She later learned of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda and of Native Americans moving to Mississippi because it was one of the few places where they could afford to buy their own businesses, particularly motels. The outlines of the film’s story began to take shape.

This story piqued Nair’s interest. These Native Americans left Africa, having never known India as a home, and arrived in one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Mississippi among African Americans who had never known it Africa as their home.

“What a strange trick of history that could be,” she thought at the time.

Mira Nair's experiences at Harvard shaped the story of the film she later developed with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala.

Mina’s family is based on those Native Americans displaced from Uganda who work in motels in Mississippi. Throughout the film, Nair uncovers the connection between Mina’s fellowship and Demetrius’ African-American ancestry.

Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala — who wrote two other Nair films, The Namesake and Salaam Bombay! — took a months-long journey across the South, staying in Native American motels and meeting the real people who would influence the screenplay . Nair has interviewed thousands of Ugandan exiles, she said, and the two have also traveled to the east African country to meet with some who have refused to leave or have begun returning.

Attention to detail abounds throughout the film. But it averts some of the more sinister elements of its subject matter and even plays up some of the more racist laughs. Two recurring racist white characters, for example, keep confusing Native Americans with Native Americans and saying things like “Send them back to the reservation” — something Nair and Taraporevala experienced during their trip.

“Depicting the reality of what we lived in was so funny compared to anything else, and yet it was a portrait of ignorance and total oblivion of the reality of the world,” Nair said.

A scene from

Urmila Seshagiri, a professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, has been teaching Mississippi Masala in her classes for over two decades. But before she became a professor, she was an avid student — a student who had traveled to Cleveland from Oberlin College to see the film at an art house.

“To see an Indian woman in a feature film as the lead character was amazing at the time,” Seshagiri told CNN.

Months later, she took her parents to see the film as well. It’s been decades, but she remembers the audience in that theater: the blacks all sat on one side, the Indians on the other.

The film’s Criterion re-release speaks to its enduring radicalism. Seshagiri used an early moment in the film as an example: when Mina’s family moves from Uganda to Mississippi, their journey is depicted on a map. As the camera pans from Uganda to England, the journey is accompanied by a classical Indian flute – which then morphs into a blues instrumental reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a subtle shift, but a brilliant one, she said.

“It really speaks to the film’s persistence that nobody is just one thing,” Seshagiri said. “That identities are always plural; they are always mixed, that no one is authentically or uniformly one or the other.”

Roshan Seth (left) and Sharmila Tagore (right) played Mina's parents, who made the decision to leave Uganda in the early parts of the film.

That kind of nuance is rarely portrayed by Hollywood today. Simply bringing together the history of enslaved people in the US and colonized subjects of the British Empire is profound — and shows those stories may be closer than history textbooks reveal, Seshagiri said.

And the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of this relationship either. In one scene, Washington’s Demetrius confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, after some Indian motel owners boycott his business.

“I know you and your people can come from god knows where and be about as black as the ace of spades and as soon as you get here you start acting like white. They treat us like we’re their doormats,” Washington says. He points to his cheek. “I know you and your daughter are just a few shades away from that here. I know that.”

Other films in the early 1990s asked similar questions

Although the film was successful, “nobody, really nobody” wanted to fund it, Nair said.

Her first film, Salaam Bombay!, was a huge hit at the time – it was anointed with some of the most coveted cinema awards, winning the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earning a nomination for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards . When people heard she was doing a second film, they wanted to meet her, Nair recalls. And she had Denzel Washington.

But even the most forward-thinking hesitated, Nair said, asking them to make room for a white protagonist.

“I promise all the waiters in this movie are white,” she said. You would laugh nervously; she would ring. And then she would be shown the door.

“They wanted to make[the film]something different than what it was supposed to be,” Nair told CNN. “So it wasn’t easy, really not easy.”

Finally, Cinecom, which funded and distributed Salaam Bombay!, caught on. But the budget was tight by Hollywood standards: just $5 million, about half of what she asked for.

Chanda Sharma in Nair's first feature film Salaam Bombay!

Today, wives of color filmmakers and television professionals are more common: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloé Zhao, and Ava DuVernay are all known to varying degrees of acclaim. In the 1990s, however, the film landscape was still very male, very vintage, and very white, Seshagiri said. And “Mississippi Masala” — with its dual settings and multi-generational actors from different countries – is exactly the opposite of that.

“It was groundbreaking for Mira Nair to direct and win international awards for feature film directing,” she said. “I mean, that was incredible.”

That there is a film like “Mississippi Masala” at all is almost a miracle. But it wasn’t Nair work in vacuum.

The film’s release coincided with a breakthrough period for films about minority and immigrant communities in dialogue, Seshagiri said, and not in contrast to a white majority. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing preceded Mississippi Masala, which was later followed by Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. All films take place in a similar space.

“These films … really allowed the minority characters to be complex and multidimensional,” Seshagiri said. “They didn’t have to be representative of a whole group of people. And these characters could be funny and sexy even when they were in real trouble or real pain.”

Other films released the same year as Mississippi Masala ask similar questions about belonging. Seshagiri referenced Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. While not immigrant films in the same sense as Nair’s film, they do explore how we connect within and outside of families or local and national collectives.

“Mississippi Masala” received mostly positive reviews at the time of its release from major outlets and critics, including Roger Ebert and the New York Times. (Eber gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4). Many picked up on how unique the story was.
Choudhury and Washington go in
But some academic feminists were less enthusiastic — namely Bell Hooks, who co-wrote an article with scholar Anuradha Dingwaney Needham criticizing the film. In the much-cited 1992 review, the writers argued that the film feasted on stereotypes of the Indian, black, and southern white characters, saying that the exploration of their relationships was superficial and mocking.

They also condemned the film’s political orientation, particularly the idea that romantic love can somehow transcend systems of oppression and domination.

The film ends optimistically, but cautiously: Mina and Demetrius, dressed in vaguely “ethnic” attire, kiss playfully in a cotton field.

The scene takes place in the credits after the actual movie ends. There is no place for this love in the film itself, Seshagiri noted. At that time there was no world in which Mina and Demetrius could live happily ever after.

The question remains: is this love possible within the confines of American society? Is that different now? Mina and Demetrius might hope so.

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