Indian Immigrants in
a Black-and-White Milieu
Near the beginning of Mira Nair's sweetly pungent new comedy, "Mississippi Masala," Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is driving a large, borrowed American automobile down a highway near Greenwood, Miss., arguing with her mother, who sits imperially in the back. Mina drives with the hapless self-assurance of someone who doesn't often get behind a wheel.
With her head turned around to answer her mother, Mina slams into the rear of the stopped van owned by Demetrius (Denzel Washington), who owns a rug-cleaning service. The van is slightly damaged, but no one is hurt. Names and addresses are exchanged. The incident is handled with comparative amiability, considering the nature of most such encounters.
It is also the first of a series of collisions by which "Mississippi Masala" vividly dramatizes the uncertain, frequently comic progress of the love affair of Mina, a spirited young Indian who has never seen India, and Demetrius, a conscientious, upwardly mobile black American who has never seen Africa.
The landscape of "Mississippi Masala" is brown and black and white. The blacks and whites have been in Greenwood for generations. The browns are newcomers. They are the Indian immigrants who have somehow found their way to Greenwood and, for reasons not entirely clear, have wound up owning most of the motels.
The Indian innkeepers are fastidious about their own manners and morals, but they are equally willing to rent rooms by the night, day or hour. It's recognized as a respectable business. Yet the so-called New South remains a network of social and cultural taboos that almost wreck the lives of Mina and Demetrius.
"Mississippi Masala" appears to have been produced on a modest (by Hollywood standards) budget, but it is a big movie in terms of talent, geography and concerns. Racism isn't the major issue, at least on the surface. Mina and Demetrius must fight the sense of cultural dislocation that, for different reasons, has become a part of the heritage of each.
"Mississippi Masala" demonstrates that the success of "Salaam Bombay!" (1988), the first collaboration of Ms. Nair, the director, and Sooni Taraporevala, her screenwriter, was not an accident. The new film has its own engagingly idiosyncratic pace. It hurries up, dawdles and then moves on. It is full of odd characters who are not neatly explained. It is melancholy without tears.
By way of background for the contemporary story, "Mississippi Masala" opens with an extensive pre-credit sequence set in Uganda in 1972, a time of tumult, rude awakenings and "Africa for the Africans." Gen. Idi Amin has just ordered the expulsion of all Asians from his country.
Mina's father, Jay (Roshan Seth), a successful journalist, is seen being sent into exile with his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and small daughter. Jay, whose family had lived in Africa for three generations, always considered himself Ugandan first, Indian second. Career, home, friends are abruptly abandoned. It is something he never quite accepts, even long after he has been working at the Monte Cristo, the Greenwood motel owned by one of his many relatives.
"Mississippi Masala" (masala being the name of a mixture of Indian spices) displays a generous kind of interest in all of the people who make up the separate worlds of Mina and Demetrius. Among others there are Demetrius's layabout brother (Tico Wells) and his father (Joe Seneca), who has survived by being mannerly in a white society.
There's also Demetrius's former girlfriend (Natalie Oliver), who is on her way up in the music world and is no longer interested in his business success. Poor Demetrius. When he finally has a word alone with her, all that he can say is: "We got some new machines. We're doing work with deep shags."
Ms. Nair is slightly more caustic about her Indian characters. They worry and bicker among themselves and work various scams, but they are energized into collective Indian outrage by the scandalous behavior of Mina and Demetrius.
Mr. Washington and Ms. Choudhury, whose first film this is, work well together. He has a screen heft that gives the film its dramatic point. Her voluptuous presence defines the urgency of the love affair. In terms of wit and plain old good humor, they are each other's equals.
Mr. Seth ("Ghandi," "My Beautiful Laundrette") and the other members of the huge cast also count a lot in creating the sense of community, or lack of same, which is the heart of a film about displaced persons and reassuring emotional continuity against all odds.
"Mississippi Masala," which has been rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian), has some sex, partial nudity and vulgar language. Mississippi Masala Directed by Mira Nair; written by Sooni Taraporevala; director of photography, Ed Lachman; edited by Roberto Silvi; music by L. Subramaniam; production designer, Mitch Epstein; produced by Michael Nozik and Ms. Nair; released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated R. Demetrius . . . Denzel Washington Mina . . . Sarita Choudhury Jay . . . Roshan Seth Kinnu . . . Sharmila Tagore Tyrone . . . Charles S. Dutton Williben . . . Joe Seneca Anil . . . Ranjit Chowdhry Dexter . . . Tico Wells Alicia LeShay . . . Natalie Oliver
The Newyork Times | February 5, 1992
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