Tuesday, September 19

Mississippi Masala in Review

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Greenwood, Mississippi
August 1990

Meena is buying fifty gallons of milk in a grocery store. She looks like the sun with her orange kurta and dark brown skin set against an all-beige wall of nondescript food items. And when she moves her mane of thick curly black hair out of her face, she purses her lips slightly like she is focused, frustrated, and apathetic at the same time.

Cut back to Uganda November 1972 when General Idi Amin is declaring Africa for the Africans, sending thousands of Indian families to pack up their houses in suitcases. Meena’s father, a born Indian-African, is clawing back and refusing to leave.

Mississippi again. This world is flatlands next to Uganda’s rolling emerald mountains. Meena’s family lives in a decrepit motel when before they lived in a mansion set among pink hibiscus flowers. A young Denzel Washington is hanging off the door frame, making puppy dog eyes at Meena, who is giggling with all her teeth.

Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala is two stories: One is the slow-burning romance between Meena (Sarita Choudhury), a third culture Indian-African motel worker, and Demetrius Williams (Denzel Washington), a noble-minded Black American carpet cleaner. The other is about Meena’s father (Roshan Seth) battling for the property and life he was forced to leave behind in Uganda to the point where it consumes him. This film is about two worlds of Black people and the Brown people who travel between them.

It is unexpectedly sensual. Meena’s sexuality comes out in soft touches, half-naked phone calls, and one leisurely sex scene. Seeing a South Asian woman in this raw, unfiltered light is equally uncomfortable and relaxing. It pulls the curtain back on interracial romance, making it seem unremarkable to both the couple and the audience.

And race remains at the surface of every scene. There is a distance between worlds, Indian Mississippi and Black Mississippi, America and Uganda, Meena and her father, and we see Meena and Demetrius acting as a bridge. Meena’s supporting cast of uncles, aunties, and parents are willing to declaim on the importance of solidarity between people of color until Meena wants Demetrius. Then the men pick fights and the women gossip.

As Demetrius says, while he and Meena walk slowly along the beach, racism is passed down like tradition. The two are often the same, anti-blackness handed over with sunset palettes, salwaar kameez, and old radios.

Mississippi Masala resolves all its points — the couple escape, Meena’s father completes his mission, the world continues on unchanged. It’s a very neat bow on top of a poem of a film.

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