Mississippi Masala (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although Jay (Roshan Seth) was born and raised in Uganda, he and his family were forced to pack up their lives and emigrate when Idi Amin, the president in 1972, gave Asians ninety days to leave the country. The ethnic cleansing in Uganda was an event that Jay never chose to move on from, consistently sending letters, despite having established a life in Greenwood, Mississippi, to the Ugandan government. He wishes to sue for the property he had left behind.
Directed by Mira Nair, “Mississippi Masala” is a movie actually about something—and although it was released more than twenty years ago, it remains all the more resonant today. The picture is about race, yes, but it is also more than that. It is about identity and the film explores this subject on three fronts: Jay who considers himself Ugandan first and Indian second; Meena (Sarita Choudhury), Jay’s daughter, who gets romantically involved with a black man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington), despite knowing that her Indian community will disapprove of the relationship; and Demetrius, a carpet cleaner who has his own business, who must deal with the aftermath once everybody in town learns of his private life. Because the lives of the characters have so much depth, it is wise to end the film with some closure but not with a neat little bow.
The romantic and love scenes between Demetrius and Meena stand out. In the movies, seeing two people of color from different ethnic background remains uncommon in the first place, but treating their thoughts and feelings with complexity is rare. They are not reduced to stereotypes. I relished the scenes where the two characters are just talking and getting to know each other. There is always build-up. We learn about their key similarities and differences. We come up with good reasons why they should be together. Yet we acknowledge some of the challenges they might face. Will they hold hands? Kiss? Go to bed? Whatever happens, the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is undeniable.
Perceptive is a good word to describe the film. A lower level of writing would have made the father a one-dimensional racist who does not want his daughter dating a black man. Deep down, we know Jay is not a racist even though some of his actions suggest he might be. Seth is a performer who fascinates the longer his face remains on a shot. He has a way of always wearing and thereby communicating his character’s painful final experiences in Uganda. Trauma becomes a part of his later choices.
Nair executes the scenes with confidence and flavor. I admired how she takes the time to show little things like how a specific family celebrates a birthday party, how a person sizes up the competition when it comes to winning over a man, how the central couple make love for the first time. Because almost each scene offers something special, combined with a story arc that is not a facsimile of Screenplay 101, what results is a work with a defined perspective, one that challenges, engages, and satiates the viewer.
Some might argue that perhaps it is too ambitious in scope. A valid criticism is that because it must spend time painting a complex picture of Jay’s trauma, Demetrius is not given a more definite or dramatic arc. At times I felt as though he comes across as too much of a nice guy. There is evidence that he grew up in poverty—or at least close to it. We expect to feel a bit of roughness from the character but we never do. Perhaps the writer and director considered that to be a predictable route and simply decided to go against it.