They are both lying on their bed, phone hanging to their ears. His hands were fiddling with the bottom of his shirt, revealing a soft belly. running through her hair absentmindedly; The camera moves down her legs.
The two characters – Demetrius of Washington and Chaudhry Mina – are miles away in the scene, nowhere near touching. However, the tension subsides.
“The only thing I hear constantly is that it’s among the sexiest films of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone is kind of in agreement about discussing the phone scene.”
First released in 1991, Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” has become a cult classic — but in recent years, finding a copy of the movie has been difficult. Now, Criterion Group has released a 4K digital restoration of the film under the direction of Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also in the midst of a national theatrical release, introducing it to new audiences across the country.
The Mississippi Masala hypothesis 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 call attention to some hard truths: references to colour, racism, anti-blackness, caste, and xenophobia across races, while also asking tough questions about humanity and identity.
After all, what Do mean to be out of place? What is home? What is affiliation? What is sweat? Somehow, the song “Mississippi Masala” digs into it all – and does so while subtly avoiding any semblance of sermons.
The play “Mississippi Masala” began at Harvard University
Nair’s own experiences as a Harvard student were the basis for the film. Her arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts marked the first time she had left India, her native country, and found herself living among the school’s black and white communities. They both let her in, but she sensed the boundary between the two. This is how the idea for “Mississippi masala” first grew.
This date sparked Nair’s interests. These Indians left Africa, never knowing India as a homeland, and arrived at one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, among the African Americans who never knew Africa to be their home.
“What a strange hoax in history,” I thought at the time.
The Mina family is based on these Indians, who were expelled from Uganda and work in Mississippi motels. Throughout the film, Nair reveals the connection between Mina’s community and Demetrius’ African-American lineage.
Nair and screenwriter Soni Taraporevala – who has written two other Nair films, “The Namesake” and “Salaam Bombay!” He took a months-long trip across the south, stayed in Indian-owned motels and met real people who would influence the scenario. Nair said thousands of exiled Ugandans were interviewed, and the two also traveled to the East African country to meet some who had refused to leave or who had begun to return.
Attention to detail is rich throughout the film. But he avoids some of the more sinister elements of his theme and even plays some of the more racist moments for laughs. Two recurring racial figures in white, for example, continue to confuse Indians and Native Americans, by saying things like “send them back to the reserve”—something Nair and Tarapurivala experienced during their journey.
“Picturing the reality of what we were experiencing was laughable compared to anything else, and yet it was a depiction of ignorance and complete forgetfulness of 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 classrooms for more than two decades. But before she became a professor, she was an avid college student – she had moved to Cleveland from Oberlin College to watch the movie in 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, she took her parents to see the movie as well. Decades have passed, but she remembers the audience in that theater: the blacks sat on one side, the Indian people on the other.
The re-release of the film speaks of an ongoing radical. Seshagiri used an early moment in the film as an example: When the Mina family moves from Uganda to Mississippi, their journey is depicted on a map. As the camera travels from Uganda to England, the flight’s soundtrack is recorded using the classical Indian flute – which is then transformed into a blues-like instrument reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. She said it was a subtle transformation, but a wonderful transformation.
“He’s really talking about the movie’s insistence that nobody is just one thing,” Seshagiri said. “These identities are always plural; they are always mixed, so that no one is authentically or unified one thing or the other.”
This kind of nuance is rarely depicted in Hollywood today. Even just putting the history of slaves in the United States and colonial subjects in the British Empire side by side, Seshagiri said, shows that these stories may be closer than what history textbooks reveal.
And the movie doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of that relationship, either. In one scene, Demetrius of Washington confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, after some Indian hoteliers boycotted his company.
“I know you and your family members could come down here because God knows where and it’s black like an ace of a spade, and once you get here you start acting white. Treat us like we’re your doormat,” Washington says. He points to his cheek. “I know you and your daughter are only a few degrees from this here. That’s what I know.”
Other films in the early ’90s asked similar questions
Although the film was a success, “Nobody, really nobody” wanted to finance it, Nair said.
She made her first movie, “Salam Bombay!” , a huge success at that time – having received some of the most prestigious awards in cinema, winning a camera role at the Cannes Film Festival and receiving a nomination for Best International Film. Feature at the Oscars. When people heard she was doing a second movie, they wanted to meet her, Nair recalls. She has Denzel Washington.
Nair said that even the most progressive were hesitant, asking her to make room for the white protagonist.
She would say, “I promise all the waiters in this movie will be white.” They were laughing nervously. She was giggling. Then he shows her the door.
“They wanted to make something else out of (the movie) instead of making it,” Nair told CNN. “So it wasn’t easy, really it wasn’t easy.”
Ultimately, Cinecom funded and distributed the “Salaam Bombay!” segment. But the budget was tight by Hollywood standards: only $5 million, half of what she asked for.
These days, women of color filmmakers and TV creators are becoming more and more popular: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloe Chow and Ava DuVernay are all famous with varying degrees of acclaim. Seshagiri said that in the ’90s, the filmmaking scene was still too masculine, too old school, and too white. and Mississippi Masala – With its dual positions and multi-generational actors from different countries – it is very much the opposite.
“Directing Mira Nair and winning international awards for directing feature films was groundbreaking,” she said. “I mean, that was unbelievable.”
The fact that there is a movie like ‘Mississippi Masala’ is almost a miracle. But Nair was not like that Work in the void.
Seshagiri said the film’s release coincided with a breakthrough period for films about minorities and immigrant communities in dialogue with each other, not in contrast to the white majority. “Do The Right Thing” by Spike Lee was preceded by “Mississippi Masala”, which was 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 multi-dimensional,” Sishgiri said. “They didn’t have to be representative of a whole group of people. These characters can be funny and they can be exciting, even while they’re in real trouble or in real pain.”
Other films were released in the same year as “Mississippi Masala” asked similar questions about affiliation. Seshagiri referred to “Daughters of Dust” by Julie Dash and “Boys in the Hood” by John Singleton. Although they aren’t immigrant films in the same vein as Nair’s, she said they grapple with the question of how we identify with and without families or local and national groups.
They also condemned the film’s political inclination, in particular the idea that romantic love could somehow overcome systems of oppression and domination.
The film ends on an optimistic, but cautionary note: Mina and Demetrius, dressed in vague “ethnic” clothes, kiss in a cotton field.
The scene takes place in the credits, after the actual movie ends. Seshagiri pointed out that there is no place for this love in the film itself. At that time, there was no world in which Mina and Demetrius could live happily ever after.
The question remains: Is this love possible within the limits of American society? Is anything different now? Mina and Demetrius might hope so.