They are both lying in their respective beds, a phone glued to their ears. His hands play with the bottom of his shirt, exposing a soft stomach. Hers ran absently through her hair; the camera pans over her legs.
The two characters – Demetrius from Washington and Mina from Choudhury – are miles apart in the scene, far from touching. Yet the tension is striking.
“The one thing I hear constantly now is that it’s one of the sexiest movies of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone is kind of unanimous in discussing the phone scene.”
Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” first released in 1991, has become something of a cult classic — but in recent years it’s been hard to find a copy of the film. Now, Criterion Collection has released a 4K digital restoration of the film overseen by Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also in the midst of a national theatrical rollout, exposing it to new audiences across the country.
The premise of “Mississippi Masala” 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 never left Mississippi. But Nair uses this love story to draw attention to some difficult realities: pointing out colorism, racism, anti-Blackness, classism and xenophobia across races, while also asking difficult questions of humanity and identity.
After all, what Is does that mean coming from a place? What is home? What is belonging? What is racing? Somehow, “Mississippi Masala” digs into it all — and does so while deftly avoiding any semblance of a sermon.
“Mississippi Masala” started at Harvard
Nair’s own experiences as a student at Harvard University grounded the film. Her arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, marked her first time leaving India, her home country, and she found herself living between the school’s black and white communities. The two let her in, but she felt the boundaries between the two. This is how the idea behind “Mississippi Masala” was born.
This story piqued Nair’s interests. These Indians left Africa, having never known India as a homeland, and arrived in one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, among African Americans who had never known Africa to be their home.
“What a strange turn of history this could be,” she thought at the time.
Mina’s family is based on those Indians, expelled from Uganda and working in motels in Mississippi. Throughout the film, Nair discovers the connection between Mina’s community and Demetrius’ African-American lineage.
Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala – who wrote two other Nair films, “The Namesake” and “Salaam Bombay!” – took a months-long trip through the South, staying in Indian-owned motels and meeting the real people who would influence the script. Nair interviewed thousands of Ugandan exiles, she said, and the two also traveled to the East African country to meet some who had refused to leave or started to return.
The attention to detail is rich throughout the film. But he avoids some of the more sinister elements of his subject matter, even playing up some of the more racist moments for a laugh. Two recurring racist white characters, for example, continue to confuse Indians with Native Americans, saying things like “Send them back to the reservation” – something Nair and Taraporevala experienced during their journey.
“Depicting the reality of what we were going through was so funny compared to anything else, and yet it was a portrait of complete ignorance and oblivion of what the reality of the world is,” Nair said. .
Urmila Seshagiri, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has taught “Mississippi Masala” in her classes for more than two decades. But before she was a teacher, she was an enthusiastic student – a student who had traveled to Cleveland from Oberlin College to see the film at an art house.
“To see an Indian woman in a feature film as a lead character was amazing at the time,” Seshagiri told CNN.
Months later, she also took her parents to see the film. It’s been decades, but she remembers the audience at that theatre: Blacks were all seated on one side, Indians on the other.
The re-release of the Criterion film testifies to his enduring radicalism. Seshagiri 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 pans from Uganda to England, the journey is accompanied by a classical Indian flute, which then transforms into a blues instrument reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a subtle, but brilliant change, she says.
“It really speaks to the film’s insistence that no one is one thing,” Seshagiri said. “That identities are always plural; they are always mixed, that no one is authentically or uniformly one or the other.”
This type of nuance is still rarely represented by Hollywood today. Even the simple act of tandeming the histories of slaves in the United States and colonized subjects of the British Empire is profound — showing that these histories may be closer than history textbooks reveal, Seshagiri said.
And the movie doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of that relationship either. In one scene, Washington’s Demetrius confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, after some Indian motel owners boycott his business.
“I know you and your people can come here from God knows where and be about as black as the ace of spades, and as soon as you get here you start acting white. Treat us like we’re your doormats,” Washington says. . He points his cheek. “I know you and your daughter are just a few shades away. That I know.”
Other movies from the early 1990s asked similar questions
Although the film was a success, “nobody, really nobody” wanted to finance it, Nair said.
His debut film, ‘Salaam Bombay!’, was a massive hit at the time – scooping some of cinema’s most coveted awards, winning the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earning a Best Picture nomination. international feature film at the Oscars. When people heard she was making a second movie, they wanted to meet her, Nair recalls. And she had Denzel Washington.
Still, even the most progressive were hesitant, Nair said, asking him to make room for a white protagonist.
“I promise all the servers in this movie will be white,” she said. They were laughing nervously; she would laugh. And then we would show him the door.
“They wanted to do something else (of the movie) rather than what it was going to be,” Nair told CNN. “So it was not easy, really not easy.”
Finally, Cinecom, which had financed and distributed “Salaam Bombay! “, has bitten. But the budget was tight by Hollywood standards: a mere $5 million, or about half of what she asked for.
These days, wives of color filmmakers and TV creators are more common: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloe Zhao and Ava DuVernay are all known to varying degrees of acclaim. In the 1990s, however, the cinematic landscape was still very masculine, very old school and very white, Seshagiri said. And “Mississippi Masala” — with its two locations and multi-generational cast from different countries – is quite the antithesis of that.
“For Mira Nair to direct and win international awards for feature filmmaking was groundbreaking,” she said. “I mean, it was amazing.”
The fact that a film like “Mississippi Masala” exists then is almost a miracle. But Nair was not work in a vacuum.
The film’s release coincided with a watershed period for films about minority and immigrant communities in dialogue with each other, Seshagiri said, rather than in contrast to a white majority. Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” preceded “Mississippi Masala”, which was then followed by Gurinder Chadha’s “Bhaji on the Beach” and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet”. All the films play in a similar space.
“These films…really allowed minority characters to be complex and multi-dimensional,” Seshagiri said. “They didn’t have to be representative of an entire group of people. And those characters could be funny and they could be sexy, even when they were in real trouble or in real pain.”
Other movies released the same year as “Mississippi Masala” ask similar questions about belonging. Seshagiri highlighted Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”. Although they are not immigrant films in the same vein as Nair’s film, she said they struggle with the question of how we affiliate within and without families or collectives. local and national.
They also condemned the film’s political bent, particularly the idea that romantic love can somehow overcome systems of oppression and domination.
The film ends on an optimistic but cautious note: Mina and Demetrius, dressed in vaguely “ethnic” clothing, playfully kiss in a cotton field.
The scene takes place in the credits, after the end of the film. There is no place for this love in the film itself, Seshagiri noted. Back then, there was no world where Mina and Demetrius could live happily ever after.
The question persists: is this love possible within the confines of American society? Is it different now? Mina and Demetrius could hope so.