They are both lying on their respective beds, with a phone pressed to their ears. His hands play with the bottom of her shirt, revealing a soft belly. Hers absently slide through his hair; the camera pans over his legs.
The two characters, Washington’s Demetrius and Choudhury’s Mina, are miles apart in the scene, not touching at all. Still, the tension is fascinating.
“The one thing I hear constantly now is that it’s among the sexiest movies of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone is unanimous about discussing the phone scene.”
Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” first released in 1991, became a cult classic, but in recent years, finding a print of the film has been difficult. 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 national theatrical run, exposing 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 Ugandan-born Indian woman and an African-American carpet cleaner who has never left Mississippi. But Nair uses this love story to draw attention to some tough realities: pointing to colorism, racism, anti-blackness, classism, and inter-racial xenophobia, while also asking hard questions about humanity and identity. .
After all, what does it does it mean to be from a place? What is home? What is belonging? What is race? Somehow, “Mississippi Masala” digs into all of this, and it does so while deftly avoiding any semblance of a sermon.
‘Mississippi Masala’ started at Harvard
Nair’s own experiences as a student at Harvard University ground the film. His arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts marked the first time he had left India, his home country, and he found himself living among the school’s black and white communities. They both let her in, but she felt the boundaries between them. Thus the idea behind “Mississippi Masala” was born.
This story piqued Nair’s interests. These Indians left Africa, never having known India as their home, and arrived at one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, among African-Americans they had never known. Africa as his home.
What a strange trick of history could this be, he thought at the time.
Mina’s family is based on those Indians, expelled from Uganda and working in Mississippi motels. Throughout the film, Nair discovers the connection between Mina’s community and Demetrius’ African-American lineage.
Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote two other Nair films, “The Namesake” and “Salaam Bombay!” — traveled for months through the South, staying in Indian-owned motels and meeting the real-life people who would influence the script. Nair interviewed thousands of Ugandan exiles, he said, and the two also traveled to the East African country to meet with some who had refused to leave or had begun to return.
Attention to detail is rich throughout the film. But it avoids some of the more sinister elements of its subject matter, even reproducing some of the more racist moments for laughs. Two recurring racist white characters, for example, continue to confuse Indians with Native Americans, saying things like “Send them back to the reservation,” something Nair and Taraporevala experienced during their journey.
“Portraiting the reality of what we were living through was so much fun compared to anything else, and yet it was a portrait of total ignorance and forgetfulness about what the reality of the world is,” Nair said.
Urmila Seshagiri, a professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, has taught “Mississippi Masala” in her classes for more than two decades. But before she was a teacher, she was an excited college student, one who had driven to Cleveland from Oberlin College to see the movie at an art house.
“Seeing an Indian woman in a feature film as the main character was amazing at the time,” Seshagiri told CNN.
Months later, he also took his parents to see the film. Decades have passed, but she remembers the audience in that theater: the blacks all sat on one side, the Indians on the other.
Criterion’s re-release of the film speaks to its enduring radicalism. Seshagiri used a moment early 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 features a classical Indian flute soundtrack, which then morphs into an instrumental blues reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a subtle but brilliant change, she said.
“It really speaks to the film’s insistence that no one is just one thing,” Seshagiri said. “That identities are always plural, always mixed, that no one is authentically or uniformly one thing or the other.”
That kind of nuance is still rarely portrayed by Hollywood today. Even putting together the stories of enslaved people in the US and the colonized subjects of the British empire goes a long way, showing that these stories may be closer to what history textbooks reveal, Seshagiri said.
And the movie doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of that relationship, either. In one scene, Demetrius from Washington confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, after some Indian motel owners boycott his business.
“I know you and your people can come here from God knows where and be as black as the ace of spades, and as soon as you get here, you’re going to start acting white. Treating us like we’re your doormats,” Washington says. . He points to his cheek. “I know that you and your daughter are but a few shadows of this here. I know that.”
Other films from the early 1990s raised similar questions.
Although the film has been successful, “no one, really no one” wanted to finance it, Nair said.
His first film, “Salaam Bombay!”, was a huge success at the time, winning some of cinema’s most coveted awards, winning the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earning a nomination for Best international movie. performance at the Academy Awards. When people found out he was making a second movie, they wanted to meet her, Nair recalls. And she had Denzel Washington.
However, even the most progressive were hesitant, Nair said, asking him to make room for a white lead.
“I promise all the waiters in this movie will be white,” he said. They laughed nervously; she would laugh out loud. And then they would show him her door.
“They wanted to do more of (the movie) instead of what it was going to be,” Nair told CNN. “So it wasn’t easy, it really wasn’t easy.”
Eventually, Cinecom, which had financed and distributed “Salaam Bombay!”, bit. But the budget was tight by Hollywood standards: just five million dollars, about half of what he had asked for.
These days, women of color filmmakers and television creators are more common: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloé Zhao and Ava DuVernay are known with varying degrees of acclaim. However, in the 1990s, the film scene was still very masculine, very old-school and very white, Seshagiri said. And “Mississippi Masala” — with its dual venues and multigenerational actors from different countries, it is very much the antithesis of that.
“For Mira Nair, directing and winning international awards for directing feature films was groundbreaking,” he said. “I mean, that was amazing.”
The fact that a movie like “Mississippi Masala” exists, then, is something of a miracle. But Nair was not working in a vacuum.
The film’s release coincided with a breakthrough period for films about minority and immigrant communities in dialogue with each other, Seshagiri said, rather than in contrast to a white majority. Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” preceded “Mississippi Masala”, which was then followed by Gurinder Chadha’s “Bhaji on the Beach” and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet”. All films are projected in a similar space.
“These movies… really allowed minority characters to be complex and multidimensional,” Seshagiri said. “They didn’t have to be representative of an entire group of people. And these characters could be funny and sexy, even when they were experiencing real problems or feeling real pain.”
Other movies released the same year as “Mississippi Masala” ask similar questions about belonging. Seshagiri pointed to Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.” Although they are not immigrant films in the same vein as Nair’s film, he said they do address the question of how we affiliate within and outside of local and national families or collectives.
They also condemned the film’s political bent, particularly the idea that romantic love can somehow overcome systems of oppression and domination.
The film ends on an upbeat but cautious note: Mina and Demetrius, dressed in vaguely “ethnic” clothing, playfully kiss in a cotton field.
The scene takes place in the credits, after the actual movie has finished. There is no place for that love in the film itself, Seshagiri noted. At that time, there was no world where Mina and Demetrius could live happily ever after.
The question remains: Is such love possible in the confines of American society? Is it different now? Mina and Demetrius could expect that.