August 10, 2020
Charles S. Dutton
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
ississippi Masala (1991), written by Sooni Taraporevala and directed by Mira Nair, is a kind of Romeo and Juliet-adjacent love story; thankfully, no suicidal tragedy interrupts the action. Set in Greenwood, Miss. in the 1990s, it’s about a 24-year-old Indian woman, Mina (Sarita Choudhury, in her feature debut), who falls in love with Demetrius (a charming Denzel
Washington), a Black man who recently started his own carpet-cleaning business in town. (Their meet-cute isn’t all that cute, but it is memorable: Mina accidentally rear-ends his business truck while arguing with a relative in the car
objecting to her driving.)
For the twosome, who start dating a little after getting better acquainted at one of the few local nightclubs, love is pretty immediate. Demetrius is inviting Mina over for lunch with his family only a few days after they’ve gotten to know each other. But Mina, who doesn’t know how exactly to tell Demetrius, worries about what sort of reaction her parents, Jay (Roshan Seth) and Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), are going to have to the relationship. She knows she’s going to have to reveal it at some point — this is undoubtedly going to be a serious thing. Mina still lives with Mom and Dad; they still treat her like a teenager.
Jay and Kinnu have, for years, been wary of Black people. They hail from Uganda, but, in August, 1972, were ordered alongside all other Asian residents living in the country at the time to leave by then-president Idi Amin. They first headed to England. Greenwood became their next (and more-permanent) home when they were invited by family to help operate a motel chain. Jay, who has never gotten over the trauma of his forced exile, has never fully assimilated to America. A former lawyer, he has long been obsessively trying to figure out a way to take back his confiscated Uganda house and migrate back. As part of his grief, he has manifested his anguish into an all-out racist distrust. (The seedlings of Mississippi Masala were planted in Nair while she was filming 1988’s Salaam Bombay!; after traveling to the American South, she noticed an influx of Indian and Pakistani people there and looked into some of their backstories.)
The romance of Mississippi Masala is its best attribute. Washington and Choudhury have an endearing rapport; you can sense, early on in the relationship, just how enamored Mina and Demetrius are of each other, and how precisely they choose each word to keep things going. (In a recent interview with Vulture, Choudhury said that this palpable sense of mutual reverence was based in reality — still a newcomer at the time in contrast to the more-established Washington, who’d just won an Oscar for 1989’s Glory,
she was understandably overwhelmed by him at first.) We almost don’t realize how much we’ve invested in their romance until the inexorable, temporary moment when their relationship is thwarted by familial discovery. It’s then that things start to ache, almost; we cross our fingers that the couple will not be torn apart by circumstance. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t exclusively lean into the tragic, which there is a lot of.
Watching Mississippi Masala, I was sometimes reminded of Horace B. Jenkins’ Cane River (1982), which is the only other romantic drama I can think of that so effectively imbues its central romance with the pains of history, and of having to deal with racism and colorism on a day-to-day basis. As a businessman, Demetrius is not unfamiliar with having customers be innately, racistly
distrustful of him; when dealing with a loan complication, he is given a tone-deaf lecture by a white bank employee about meritocracy. Mina has been taught, essentially, to never pursue anyone outside of her race romantically. It has also been made clear to her by older people in her family that the darkness of her skin makes her less of a commodity. “If you’re dark and rich, you’ll get married. If you’re fair and poor, you’ll get married. If you’re dark and poor, no chance,” a family friend remarks with a laugh at someone else's wedding.
Because the film is so attentive to building its history and establishing its setting, as well as the characters who surround Mina and Demetrius, there are times when we wish more of the feature was spent with the couple at its center, alone. But such a reaction also speaks to how sometimes, the early stages of a romance are not cinematically straightforward. Complications can be as omnipresent as vines in a forest, moments of romantic solitude hard to easily come by. At the end of Mississippi Masala, we don’t get an end-all, be-all resolution. Instead we stumble into a temporary clearing. B+