The police checkpoint scene is a staple in movies about refugees. These scenes are always tense and invariably involve the humiliation and intimidation of characters in the final stretch of their pursuit of freedom. In Mississippi Masala — the second of director Mira Nair’s three collaborations with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala — Sharmila Tagore’s character must endure similar indecencies as she flees her native Uganda with her husband and their young daughter, expelled by Idi Amin’s decree.
Combining politics, romance and – and this may seem odd – broad fish-out-of-water humor, Mississippi Masala’s themes of generational trauma, family conflict and the clash of cultures would become a staple of Nair’s cinema.
Watching the film in 2022 – a vibrant restoration by Criterion, no less – feels both urgent and surprisingly relaxed at the same time. For example, the scene where Tagore’s character Kinnu is separated from her family and humiliated by enemy soldiers along the way is perhaps as tense as the movie gets. And this happens in the beginning. It is otherwise quite relaxed.
Jay (Roshan Seth), Kinnu and their daughter Mina have been evicted from their home country and move to rural Mississippi (via England), where they set up a motel. While traveling through the American South, Nair found that most such businesses in the area were operated by South Asians for one reason or another. Most of them had come to America in search of a better life, but some, like Jay and his family, were refugees from Uganda.
In Mississippi Masala, she cast the fresh and rebellious Sarita Chaudhary, who gave her performance as Mina a raw edge, opposite the recent Oscar winner Denzel Washingtonwho as a carpet cleaner Demetrius already showed signs of the charismatic intensity that would later become a sign of his stardom.
Seemingly an interracial love story between twenty-somethings, Mississippi Masala regularly turns into a serious anti-war drama once the focus shifts from Mina and Demetrius to her father Jay, who yearns for his homeland in almost every scene.
Over the course of the film, Jay writes numerous letters to the “home” authorities, demanding that he be compensated for his stolen land and that he be restored with his dignity intact. It’s a sad, almost pitiful ritual that reminded me of the letters college professor Shiv Kumar Dhar wrote to the presidents of America in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s very similar film Shikara.
That film dealt with displacement in a different way, with both Shiv and his wife, Shanti, feeling a similar sense of devotion to their homeland. But in Mississippi Masala – a film told from the perspective of young Mina – only Jay feels connected to his homeland. Mina, on the other hand, is caught between cultures, grew up American, but also has to juggle her Indian heritage and Ugandan roots. It’s an unusual situation for anyone, but perhaps more uncomfortable if you’re a young woman in the throes of passion.
You may remember Nadia from Indian Matchmaking, of all things, who spoke briefly about the strangeness of a Guyanese Indian in America. US Vice President Kamala Harris, on the other hand, has also spoken about her shared Indian and Jamaican heritage.
The underlying seriousness of the romance between Mina and Demetrius stems from the realization that both the Indian community in Africa and the African community in America are descended from indentured laborers and slaves. In a heated argument towards the end of the film, after both the Indian and black communities have disapproved of their union, Demetrius tells Mina’s father that they are both outsiders, and yet the politics of oppression will always punish the black man more. Merciless. “I know you and your daughter are only a few shades away from here,” says a furious Demetrius, pointing to his own face.
They are in the same metaphorical boat centuries after their ancestors were transported to strange new lands on physical grounds.
After her feature film debut – Salaam Bombay! – became only the second Indian feature film to score an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, as it was then known. She was courted by studios to make rom-coms, and several years later, she would turn down an offer to direct a Harry Potter film. For better or for worse, her career has unfolded on her own terms. Perhaps the only indication that she had ever compromised on morals was felt in her impersonal 2009 biopic of Amelia Earhart, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere. In any case, it proved that her instincts had always been right. Amelia remains her biggest bombshell and least loved movie.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story adaptation last year reminded audiences of the importance of pushing back against minority change. This trend has become alarming, especially in our own country, where it is no longer limited to the periphery as it should be, but invaded the mainstream. Like West Side Story, Mississippi Masala is also a retelling of Romeo & Julietand at a time when Indians around the world are once again pouring disturbing amounts of energy into protesting interfaith love (and making villains of the marginalized), the film acts as a necessary and somewhat idealistic reminder that love wins in the end.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with a special focus on context, craft and characters. Because there is always something to fixate on once the dust settles.