They are both lying in their respective beds, with a phone fastened to their ears. His hands play with the bottom of his shirt, revealing a soft belly. Hers run unconsciously through her hair. the camera lowers her legs.
The two characters – Demetrius of Washington and Mina of Choudhury – are miles apart on stage and do not touch them at all. However, the tension stops.
“The only thing I hear all the time now is that it’s one of the sexiest movies of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone is somewhat unanimous about discussing the phone scene.”
Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” first released in 1991, became a bit of a cult classic – but in recent years, finding a copy of the film has been really difficult. Now, the Criterion Collection has released a 4K digital remake of the film under the supervision of Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also in the middle of a national theatrical screening, exposing it to new audiences across the country.
The “Mississippi Masala” case is 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 difficult realities: highlighting color, racism, anti-Blackness, classicism, and xenophobia in all races, while also raising difficult questions of humanity and identity.
After all, what does does it mean to be from a place? What is a house? What is it to own? What is race? Somehow, the “Mississippi Masala” digs it all out – and does so while skillfully avoiding any aspect of preaching.
“Mississippi Masala” started at Harvard
Nair’s experiences as a student at Harvard University led to the film. Her arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts marked the first time she had left India, her homeland, and found herself living 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” was first developed.
This story piqued Nair’s interests. These Indians left Africa, having never known India as their homeland, and arrived at one of the centers of the Mississippi civil rights movement, among African Americans they had never known. Let Africa be their home.
“What a strange trick of history this can be,” he thought at the time.
Mina’s family is based on these Indians, who were expelled from Uganda and work in a Mississippi motel. Throughout the film, Nair reveals the connection between Mina’s community and Demetrius’s African-American descent.
Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala – who wrote two other Nair films, “The Namesake” and “Salaam Bombay!” – made a trip to the South for many months, staying in an Indian motel and meeting real-life people who would influence the script. Nair interviewed thousands of Ugandan deportees, 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 he avoids some of the most awful elements of his subject matter, playing even some of the most racist moments of laughter. Two recurring racist white characters, for example, continue to confuse Indians with Native Americans by saying things like “Send them back in custody” – something Nair and Taraporevala experienced during their journey.
“The depiction of the reality of what we were experiencing was so funny compared to anything else, and yet it was a portrait of ignorance and complete oblivion about what the reality of the world is,” Nair said.
Urmila Seshagiri, a professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, has been teaching “Mississippi Masala” in her classrooms for over two decades. But before she became a teacher, she was an excited student – one who had gone to Cleveland from Oberlin College to see the film in an art house.
“Watching an Indian star in a feature film was amazing at the time,” Sesagiri told CNN.
Months later, she took her parents to see the film. Decades have passed, but the audience remembers that theater: the blacks were all sitting on one side, the Indians on the other.
The re-release of the film Criterion speaks of its enduring radicalism. Sesagiri 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 moves from Uganda to England, the journey is heard with a classic Indian flute – which is then transformed into a blues instrument reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a subtle change, but it’s great, he said.
“It really speaks to the film’s insistence that no one is just one thing,” Sesagiri said. “That identities are always plural; they are always mixed, that no one is authentic or uniformly one thing or another.”
This type of shade is still rarely seen in Hollywood today. Even putting together the stories of enslaved people in the United States and the colonized subjects of the British Empire is profound – showing that these stories may be closer than the history textbooks reveal, Sesagiri said.
And the film does not shy away from the bad parts of this relationship. In one scene, Washington’s Demetrius confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, as some Indian motel owners boycott his business.
“I know you and yours can get down here from a God knows where to be almost black like a shovel ace, and once you get here you start playing White. Treat us like we’re your mats,” she says. Washington. He shows his cheek. “I know you and your daughter are just a few shades from here. I know that.”
Other films in the early 1990s asked similar questions
Although the film was a success, “no one, really no one” wanted to fund it, Nair said.
Her first film, “Salaam Bombay!”, Was a huge success at the time – she was anointed with some of the most coveted film awards, won the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival and won a nomination for Best International. Oscars. When people heard she made a second movie, they wanted to meet her, Nair recalls. And he had Denzel Washington.
However, even the most progressive were reluctant, Nair said, asking her to make room for a White star.
“I promise all the waiters in this movie are white,” he said. They would laugh nervously. he would starve. And then they would show her the door.
“They wanted to do something else for (the film) instead of what it would be,” Nair told CNN. “So it was not easy, it really was not easy.”
Eventually, Cinecom, which had funded and distributed “Salaam Bombay!”, Accepted. But the budget was limited by Hollywood standards: just $ 5 million, about half of what he had asked for.
These days, women color filmmakers and TV creators are more common: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloé Zhao and Ava DuVernay are all known for varying degrees of recognition. In the 1990s, however, the landscape of filmmaking was still very masculine, very old school and very white, Sesagiri said. And “Mississippi Masala” – with dual local positions and carriers of many generations from different countries – it is largely the opposite.
“It was groundbreaking for Mira Nair to direct and win international feature film awards,” he said. “I mean, it was unbelievable.”
That a movie like “Mississippi Masala” exists, then, is almost a miracle. But Nair was not working in a vacuum.
The release of the film coincided with a period of avant-garde films for minority and immigrant communities in dialogue with each other, Sesagiri said, and not unlike the white majority. Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” preceded “Mississippi Masala”, followed by Gurinder Chadha’s “Bhaji on the Beach” and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet”. All movies play in a similar space.
“These films … really allowed minority characters to be complex and multidimensional,” Sesagiri said. “They did not have to represent a whole group of people. And these characters could be funny and sexy, even when they were in real trouble or in real pain.”
Other films released in the same year as “Mississippi Masala” raise similar questions about belonging. Sesagiri showed “Daughters of the Dust” by Julie Dash and “Boyz n the Hood” by John Singleton. Although they are not immigrant films on the same wavelength as Nair’s film, he said they address the question of how we connect within and without families or local and national collectives.
They also condemned the film’s political bias, especially the idea that romantic love can somehow overcome systems of oppression and domination.
The film does end with an optimistic note, but it is careful: Mina and Dimitrios, dressed in vague “ethnic” clothes, playfully kiss in a cotton field.
The scene takes place in the titles, after the end of the real movie. There is no room for this love in the film itself, Sesagiri noted. At that time, there was no world where Mina and Dimitrios could live happily ever after.
The question remains: Is this love possible on the fringes of American society? Is it something different now? Mina and Dimitrios may be hoping for it.
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