Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mia Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.
The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.
Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.
Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.
Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.
The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.
Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.
There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.
I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.
This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”
Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at: