Mississippi Masala: A zesty medley of love across cultures

September 21, 2022, 11:24pm

by Sheryl Gwee

Driving down the sun-washed, suburban streets of Greenwood, Mississippi, a young Indian woman finds herself explaining how she was born in Africa. “I’m a mixed masala,” she smiles. “It’s a bunch of hot spices.”

As its title promises, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala is a rich, piquant portrayal of diasporic cultures colliding in America’s Deep South. Equal parts humorous and heart-wrenching, the film follows a South Asian family in their exile from Uganda under Idi Amin’s military dictatorship.

Eighteen years on, Jay, father and former lawyer, carries on searching for a way to return to his beloved Africa. Meanwhile, his wife Kinnu runs a liquor shop and their daughter Mina cleans motel rooms to make ends meet. But when Mina’s clandestine relationship with an African-American carpet-cleaner, Demetrius, is discovered, their fragile integration into the Indian community in Mississippi falls apart. As racial tensions flare up, the couple is forced to choose between kinship and love. 

Mississippi Masala is many things at once: a story of an exile desperately longing for a homeland that exists in his memory; a coming-of-age tale of his daughter’s quest for freedom and selfhood beyond familial ties; a portrait of a young man’s struggle for upward social mobility in a racist society.

These interweaving narratives rest on the central drama of Mina and Demetrius’s passionate romance. Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury’s on-screen chemistry turns what might otherwise have been a flimsy infatuation into a reason for reckoning with one’s cultural roots.

When it was first released in 1991, Mississippi Masala was a groundbreaking step forward in the representation of Asian and African diasporic experiences. Against pressures to cast a white protagonist, Nair—who had just won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for Salaam Bombay!—stuck to her guns, and insisted on spotlighting the intersection of Black and Brown communities.

“It’s really become something about living between worlds as much as I do and being able to mine that into cinema,” said the filmmaker in an interview with the New Yorker. “I wanted very much for us to see ourselves onscreen.”

Nair was born in Orissa, India; she majored in sociology at Harvard and made documentaries before pivoting to feature films. Mississippi Masala grew out of this interest in “life as it is lived”. Together with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, Nair spent months staying in Indian-owned motels in the Deep South and interviewing the Ugandan exiles who would inspire the film.

The depth of Mississippi Masala’s unique storyline won over the critics—the film bagged two awards at the 48th Venice International Film Festival and another in São Paulo. “Mississippi Masala has the benefit of showing me people I had not met before,” wrote Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4.

Indeed, Nair sheds precious light on the intricate entanglements of Black and Brown working-class communities in Mississippi. And she does so beautifully: the film revels in the sights and sounds of cultures coming together. Amid a sea of glittering saris, we catch a glimpse of children playing as cowboys and Native Americans at an Indian wedding. Whether it’s in the emerald glow of the dancefloor or the warmth of a backyard barbeque, Nair offers us the joy of everyday life—even as she turns her lens on its conflicts and struggles.

But with acclaim also comes criticism. Most notably, bell hooks and Anuradha Dingwaney called the film “shallow, dishonest, and ultimately mocking.” The two scholars took issue with how love was presented as a cure-all, rehashing a classic American narrative—that systems of domination would fall away if everyone could just see past cultural differences.

Admittedly, the film does play into Hollywood stereotypes, especially with the secondary characters. Among the Asians, there are the bumbling uncles (squirrelly, shrewd, and drunken), and the gossipy aunts (the director makes a cameo as one of them). On Demetrius’s side of the family, there’s the good-for-nothing younger brother who spends his days rapping and loitering about graffitied street corners, and the randy cousin who can’t wait to get his hands on Mina.

Nonetheless, it seems unfair to fault Nair’s reliance on tropes without acknowledging how it is precisely through the genre of romance that she eases her audiences into a more nuanced engagement with the issues at hand.

As it draws us in with lingering shots of the two lovers’ entwined bodies, the film reveals how parallel histories of displacement simmer in the heat of their passionate romance. The affinities between Mina and Demetrius run deep: Mina has never been to India, nor has Demetrius to Africa. Her grandfather was taken to Uganda to work on British railways, much as the Atlantic slave trade brought Demetrius’s family to America.

If the film gets us invested in the young protagonists, it does so to draw our attention to how their relationship transgresses communal boundaries—unspoken rules that have grown not just out of prejudice, but also out of the need to preserve their identities and livelihoods in a society rigged against non-whites.

Through taut dialogue and deliberate visual cues, Mississippi Masala shows us race, class, and how they overlap. “Your dirt is our bread and butter,” reads the hand painted slogan across the back of Demetrius’s rental van, which leaves us wondering—whose dirt? On the one hand, both Mina and Demetrius serve the motel’s white customers. However, Demetrius’s business rests on the patronage of the Indian motel owners too. Things aren’t just black and white.

These shifting power dynamics bubble to the fore as Nair cuts between past and present, between Uganda and Mississippi. Jay’s fraught exchanges with Okelo, his childhood friend, and with the policemen who eventually drive him out of Uganda, bleed into his confrontation with Demetrius. But are the relationships between South Asians and Black Ugandans really equivalent to those between Asian-Americans and African-Americans in Mississippi? Or is Jay’s wariness of Demetrius just plain prejudice?

These are big questions, and Mississippi Masala does not try to answer them all. To expect a 118-minute film to provide political solutions to colonialism and colourism would be absurd. The film does, however, paint a compelling picture of how the personal is always political. And it poses the larger problem of how younger generations might cope with the weight of history.

Nair slyly drops us a quote from Heraclitus when Demetrius recalls, “My mother used to say that you could never step into the same river twice.” As much as the film is about confronting history, it is also about the impossibility of return. Through frequent flashbacks, the past makes its presence felt, creating a complex narrative structure that mirrors the layering of lived realities. Perhaps that is the point: to capture the messiness of experience, and to evoke the ways in which memory is a surface that we scribble on, rub out, and write over again.

More than three decades after it was made, many of the film’s insights still ring true. There is something to be said about how Black and Asian experiences remain fraught with difficulty in the U.S.—considering how movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have developed over the course of the pandemic.

Watching Mississippi Masala in Singapore is hardly irrelevant either. It’s a sobering reminder of how we are connected to a much larger network of people and places, Uganda and India included, through our shared histories of imperialism and colonialism.

If you’re interested in the big questions—of cultural hybridity, of what “Asia” might mean, and of how we can expand the discourse of the global South—Mississippi Masala is a great case study. If you’re looking for a strong story and cast, tight sequences and vivid cinematography, the film has got that too. The beauty is that it works as a good old romance, aside from all of these other things. Mira Nair gives us a delectable brew of full-bodied flavours, and it’s up to us to savour all that’s bitter, sweet, sour and spicy in it.


About the Writer

Sheryl Gwee is an artist, curator and writer currently majoring in Art History and English Literature at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). She has written for Plural Art Mag and Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and is also part of Thow Kwang Clay Artists, a community of potters keeping the art of wood firing alive. If you would like to see more of her work, do reach out to her at sherylgwee00@gmail.com.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.