As its title implies, Mississippi Masala is a pungent multicultural stew simmering in the Deep South.
It is a funny, insightful romance revolving around an African-American man and an Indian-African woman, neither of whom has visited their ancestral lands, and the havoc their affair causes within their respective ethnic communities.
The movie is directed by India-born, Harvard-educated Mira Nair, whose Salaam Bombay! (1988) was an Oscar nominee for best foreign film.
Mississippi Masala, Nair's first English-language feature, is written by collaborator/college classmate Sooni Taraporevala, and it focuses on the South's social pecking order as it has evolved with the rise of civil rights and the recent wave of Asian immigrants.
On one side of sleepy Greenwood, Miss., are the blacks who have lived in subservience and poverty for generations. Along the highways leading into town are the Indians who have gained a foothold on the American Dream and now run the cheap motels, renting rooms by the hour, while maintaining strict Hindu traditions.
The directionless Mina (Sarita Choudhury) and upwardly mobile Demetrius (Denzel Washington) run into each other, literally, in a traffic accident. Their chance meeting sets this tale on its unpredictable course as it explores dislocation and assimilation in the small-town South.
Mississippi Masala actually begins 18 years earlier, in Uganda in 1972, with a prologue that explains how Mina's family arrived in Mississippi.
During this tense, emotionally wrenching segment, Mina's family is expelled from Uganda with all other Indians by dictator Idi Amin, who wants Africa for black Africans. Mina's father, Jay (Roshan Seth, My Beautiful Laundrette) had always considered himself "a Ugandan first and an Indian second." Like his daughter, he was born in Africa _ his father helped build the railroads for the British _ and so he feels like an unwilling transplant in Greenwood, Miss. as the story skips to 1990.
Jay's wife, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore, star of Satyajit Ray's classic The World of Apu), runs a liquor store in the black section of Greenwood, while Jay spends days petitioning the new Ugandan government for reparations.
Their 24-year-old daughter, Mina (newcomer Sarita Choudhury), is caught in first-generation limbo. She's an American in attitude, an outsider by race and chained to Indian customs by her parents. Mina cleans motel rooms rather than attend college.
When Demetrius first courts Mina, it's an obvious ploy to make an ex-girlfriend jealous. Though she recognizes this, Mina so much wants to escape the constrictive Indian community that she accepts Demetrius' invitation to dance and, later, eat dinner with his family.
Their friendship unexpectedly blossoms into love, but it is short-lived because Mina, who must lie about her whereabouts, is discovered in the company of a black man.
Her family is disgraced, and the Indian community feels scandalized. Demetrius' black friends taunt him for not sticking with his own kind. Potentially more devastating, the Indian motel owners and many whites break their contracts with Demetrius' carpet cleaning company, and the bank demands full payment on a loan.
Mississippi Masala exists in a landscape of contradictions. It's messier and more interesting than Spike Lee's overly orchestrated Jungle Fever.
Nair avoids stereotypes, capturing the rhythms, attitudes and prejudices of the black, white and Indian communities as they uneasily co-exist in the American melting pot.
There are occasional missteps. The movie's pacing is uneven. The scandal is overblown; Demetrius wouldn't face financial ruin for sleeping with Mina.
But the performances are excellent, and the sentiment is honed to ugly perfection. Nair notes that people of color sometimes bond when pitted against whites, but they too often see themselves as different from one another.
An Indian motel owner offers Demetrius and his partner (Charles S. Dutton) tea and calls them "brothers" when he's worried that they might sue for Mina's traffic accident. Later he bursts into a motel room when he suspects that Demetrius and Mina are having an affair.
When Mina's father tells Demetrius "the world is not quick to change" and does not accept interracial couples, Demetrius retorts that only a few shades of brown separate them. In America, they are all people of color.
There are no easy answers in Mississippi Masala. Instead, what emerges is a sense of hope: that Jay may find peace in his homeland and, more importantly, in his heart, and that Demetrius and Mina may find a homeland in the cultural masala we call America.
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Denzel Washington, Roshan Seth, Sarita Choudhury
Screenplay: Sooni Taraporevala
Rating: R; nudity, profanity, sexual situations
Running time: 118 minutes
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