Passion. Tradition. Mix It Up.
Director Mira Nair followed up her landmark, Academy Award-nominated (1989, Best Foreign Language Film) Salaam Bombay with her first American film. This intriguing, sprightly romance plays out against a backdrop of racial conflict, both in America and in Africa. It's a complex blend—at times needlessly complex—but heartfelt, instructive, and beautifully played by rising star Denzel Washington (two years after his first Oscar turn in Glory) and first-time actress Sarita Choudhury.
Facts of the Case
The curtain opens on Kampala, Uganda, circa 1972. Attorney and political activist Jay (Roshan Seth, Vertical Limit, Monsoon Wedding), his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), and young daughter Mina (played as a child by winsome Sahira Nair) are Ugandans of Asian Indian descent, descendants of workers imported by the British in the 19th century to build Uganda's railroad system. When dictator Idi Amin rises to power, he begins a purge of Asians, blaming them for the country's economic woes. (Sound familiar? Bigotry may change its colors, but rarely its rhetoric.) As Jay's childhood friend Okelo (Konga Mbandu) tells him, under Amin "Africa is for Africans…black Africans." Their home and possessions seized by the government, Jay and his family emigrate to England.
Leap forward to 1990. Jay, Kinnu, and Mina (now played by Sarita Choudhury, A Perfect Murder, 3 A.M.) have taken up station in America—Greenwood, Mississippi, to be precise—amid a community of Indian expatriates. Jay helps run the motel where his family lives, while Kinnu manages a liquor store. Mina, now 24, works as a housekeeper at the motel and longs for escape from her humdrum life.
That life takes a dramatic the morning Mina accidentally rear-ends a van driven by Demetrius (Denzel Washington, Training Day, Antwone Fisher), a handsome African-American man who owns a carpet cleaning service. The two are immediately drawn to one another, and before long they are dating. They carry on their relationship openly in front of Demetrius' skeptical father Williben (the marvelous Joe Seneca, Crossroads, A Time to Kill) and randy business partner Tyrone (Charles S. Dutton, who also co-starred in A Time to Kill), but hide their feelings from Mina's family—especially Jay, who harbors resentment against blacks, stemming from the injustices he suffered in his homeland.
Lovers' secrets never remain secret, of course, and when Demetrius and Mina's affair occasions a violent confrontation with members of the Indian community, the couple must choose between their families and heritages, and each other.
Masala is a blend of spices commonly used in Indian cuisine. The word as used in the title Mississippi Masala describes both the cross-ethnic relationship between Demetrius and Mina, and Mina herself—who finds herself a mixture of Indian, African, English, and American cultural influences, yet entirely at home with none of them. Masala is also an apt description for Mira Nair's film, which is at various turns a sociopolitical drama, a Romeo and Juliet restyling, and a commentary about the nature of prejudice.
That's probably one subplot too many for a two-hour movie, and the interpolation of Jay's conflicts with the Amin regime appears to be the odd subplot out. It's the one element that distracts the viewer away from the more cohesive and accessible elements of the film. There's a great motion picture to be made about the plight of Asians in Africa, and Nair offers flashes of it here, but in this film those flashes simply interfere with the story we really want to see—the complicated love between Demetrius and Mina, and what that love and its consequences teach us about the place of race in our society. The Montague and Capulet stuff in turn tends to trivialize the darker, more challenging Ugandan tale. Both stories are well told and worthwhile, but in this little space, they stumble over one another.
In the main, this is a minor quibble. Nair's perceptive morality play manages (mostly) to weave these competing elements together to illustrate an essential truth: prejudice and injustice are functions of human interaction, and are not necessarily specific to culture. This may come as news to many Americans, who tend to view racism as a black/white issue, given our history. But as Mississippi Masala demonstrates, the bigotry experienced by East Indians in central Africa isn't all that different from that faced by Americans of African descent on these shores—a displaced people scapegoated by those who have benefited from their labors. Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala also show us that the inherent evil of bigotry is its tendency to perpetuate itself: Jay, who is robbed of his home by black African racism, fails to see that he himself is gnawing from the same rotten apple when it comes to his daughter's love for a black American man.
Taraporevala's script makes these points in ways that rarely surprise us, but that are direct and poignant without an unduly heavy hand. Nair observes and understands her characters brilliantly, and sees each as a genuine and complex individual. Most significantly, she avoids the mistake of painting these people into stereotypical corners, or allowing them to descend into caricature. Jay is blinded by his prejudices, but he is a basically decent, honorable man living with hurt and betrayal. Demetrius and Mina initially use each other for ulterior ends—he positions her to make his ex-wife jealous, and she leverages him as an escape mechanism from her parents' stifling traditions—but their love soon evolves in realistic directions. Even Tyrone, Demetrius' on-the-make buddy who seeks to bed every woman he meets—including Mina—harbors nobler hopes and dreams beyond his lackluster Mississippi existence.
Mississippi Masala makes excellent use of a richly diverse and wonderfully talented cast, almost all of whom are of African or Indian descent. (Mira Nair has noted in interviews that the studio not-too-subtly encouraged her to find a way to work more white people into the movie.) Denzel Washington is his usual subtle and engaging self here, and he enjoys a well-conceived by-play with the late Joe Seneca as his father, and with the always-remarkable Charles S. Dutton as his best friend. But it's the Asian/Indian actors, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar to American moviegoers, who are the film's revelatory delights. Sarita Choudhury, in particular, is radiant as the sensitive and conflicted Mina—her energetic, earthy sensuality captivates the screen. Like her co-star Washington, Choudhury reflects an inner intelligence, and portrays complexity without histrionics. (A scene where the two chat idly by telephone fairly drips with such potent sexual tension—though not a single overtly suggestive word is uttered—viewers might consider a cold shower afterward.) Roshan Seth, a major star in India's Bollywood, brings a nobility and grim determination to his role. And as Jay's three friends, Ranjit Chowdhry, Mohan Gokhale, and Mohan Agashe each contribute memorable, often hilarious performances.
The cultural drama and charm of Mississippi Masala are beautifully lensed by Edward Lachman, the talented cinematographer behind the camera for such visually textured films as S1m0ne and Far From Heaven. Without calling attention to technique, Lachman transcribes a rich background for the director's story, capturing all the vivid color and life of these fascinating people. A buoyant score by noted violinist and composer L. Subramaniam complements Lachman's glorious pictures perfectly.
Mississippi Masala makes its long-overdue DVD debut by way of a disappointingly barebones package. The anamorphic transfer is decent but inconsistent, with a few random occurrences of source print flaws and grain. Colors appear warm and often strikingly bright, with full, deep shadows and no noticeable breakup or bleeding, but these pluses are offset by some mushiness and aggressively tweaked contrast in several scenes. On the other hand, the soundtrack is quite effective for a dialogue-driven film, all the more so given that it's stereo only. The soundfield is open and realistic, with tasteful use of musical cues in the outboard channels. Dialogue rings clear as a bell, and the score delivers a full, comforting tone.
The only extras we get are a trio of trailers, for The End of the Affair, Legends of the Fall, and Solomon and Gaenor. That's too bad—this is a film that begs for a commentary to provide the viewer some context about the people and cultures that form the basis for the story. Considering that the movie stars a popular, two-time Oscar laureate actor, and features the work of a much-heralded director and cinematographer, one would think a little masala—you know, spice—might be appropriate. But we'll consider ourselves fortunate just to enjoy the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like another exceptional lower-budget film about race—Spike Lee's School Daze—Mississippi Masala opens a window into a subculture seldom seen or acknowledged by mainstream America. Lee used a historically black Southern college as the canvas for his observation that racism isn't only about black and white but about shades within each (the light-skinned students of the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity/sorority circle distance themselves from their more melanin-intensive classmates). Nair's film illuminates a similarly insular ethnic community that also subdivides itself by gradations of color. The character Mina tells her mother she can't find a husband in Mississippi's Indian ghetto because she's considered "too dark."
Which begs the bottom-line question: What is race really, and what, if any, actual difference does it make, apart from our slanted, self-serving perceptions?
A delightful, ambitious film that overreaches on occasion, Mississippi Masala will appeal to fans of romances and socially conscious drama, as well as anyone interested in learning about cultures a tad different from their own. As Denzel Washington's Demetrius notes during a pivotal conversation, we're all just a few shades apart on the spectrum no matter how you slice it. Enjoyable and well worth at least an evening's rental.
The Judge finds Mississippi Masala plenty spicy enough for his tastes. However, he reprimands Columbia TriStar from the bench for the paucity of supplemental fare. The film's cast and crew are cut loose to enjoy the flavor. Court is in recess.
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