Midnight Movie: "Mississippi Masala" (USA, 1991)

Hello, BALKers! Tonight's Midnight Movie is director Mira Nair's romantic dramedy Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury (who currently plays Saul's wife on Showtime's Homeland and starred as Princess Tara in Nair's opulent 1996 epic Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love). Mississippi Masala was written by Sooni Taraporevala, who also wrote Nair's Academy Award nominated previous film Salaam Bombay! The film also stars seasoned Indian-British actor Roshan Seth, who played the harried but loving father in Nair's wonderful 2001 film Monsoon Wedding. (Watch that previous Midnight Movie at the link). The critically lauded Mississippi Masala traces a family of Ugandan Indians from exile to the American South and the torrid but scorned love affair between a child of this diaspora, Mina, and Demetrius, a local African-American man from Greenwood, Mississippi.

Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3½/4 stars, writes:

The director Mira Nair made an unexpected discovery a few years ago: A lot of the independent motels in the Deep South are owned and operated by Asian Indians. Although they trace their roots back to India or Pakistan, many of them arrived in America via Uganda, where they had put down roots for two or three generations, showing a gift for running small businesses before Idi Amin ordered them all to leave in 1972. Nair, who is herself from India via Harvard, made her discovery while journeying in the South after the release of "Salaam Bombay!" (1988), her wonderful first film about a street child. She decided to make a movie about it.

Her new film opens in Uganda, where an Indian lawyer's family lives in comfort and security until Amin confiscates the property of tens of thousands of Indians and orders them to leave immediately. The story continues in Greenwood, Miss., where the lawyer and his wife (Roshan Seth and Sharmila Tagore) own a shabby roadside motel. Their daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury), a child with sketchy memories of Africa, has grown into a ripe beauty of 24, with an American accent that immediately suggests she does not share all of her family's ideas.

Driving a car one day, she crashes into the van of a young black man (Denzel Washington), and exchanges addresses and perhaps a subtle glance of curiosity. He's interested too, and eventually they go out on a date. This is not the sort of social life Mina's parents approve of; they expect their daughter to marry within their extended community of Indian exiles, and forbid her to see Washington.

The ban only serves to underline the isolated nature of the young woman's life, and there are ironies in the racism and color consciousness she faces. Within her own community, she is considered too dark-skinned to make a desirable wife (her mother explains that if you want to catch a husband, you can be dark and rich, or light and poor, but not dark and poor). Within the black community, the Indian woman is at first accepted with friendliness (Washington takes her to meet his family at a backyard picnic). But after all of the local Indian motel owners boycott Washington's rug-cleaning company, the blacks get angry, too.

What we are dealing with is more than a transplanted version of "Romeo and Juliet." Both the black and Indian characters (and certainly the local whites, who are not much of a factor in this movie) have a vast and comfortable lack of curiosity about other races; they prefer to think of them in stereotypes, and have no desire to meet them as individuals. When the Indian woman and the black man meet and fall in love, everyone on all sides falls obediently into place to condemn their relationship.

It was racism, of course, that brought the Indians to Africa in the first place, to build the railroads, and racism that kicked them out. And it was racism that brought Africans to America. But to be a victim of the racism of others does not inoculate anyone against the prejudice that can grow in their own hearts.

All of these serious questions linger just under the surface of "Mississippi Masala," which is, despite its subject, surprisingly funny and cheerful at times, and generates a full-blown romanticism.

Have a lovely evening & enjoy the show!