Monday 10 March 2008

Mississippi Masala (1991)

Jay (Roshan Seth) in Uganda.

Mira Nair's second hit, Mississippi Masala, shares many characteristics with her later work, Monsoon Wedding, though it is also deeply enmeshed in early 90s postcolonial cinema of the Hanif Kureishi vein (e.g. My Beautiful Laundrette). There is a large cast of characters, each with believable and poignant histories, each different. There is much moral ambiguity and emotional grayness. People talk over each other, scenes end abruptly, the camera wanders. Racism - postcolonial cinema's big theme - is, as usual, presented in a harshly realistic light: not childishly one-sided as in Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, but complex and hairy, as in Kureishi's My Son the Fanatic.

Plot #1: interracial, forbidden romance.

Plot #2: forced migration.

There are two plots. The first protagonist is Jay (Roshan Seth), a Ugandan lawyer of Indian descent, who - along with his wife, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), and daughter, Meena - is expelled from Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin. The family moves to Mississippi, where it joins a community of Indian expatriates who dominate the bayou's motel industry. For twenty years, Jay lives and breathes nostalgia for Uganda, and he dreams incessantly of returning to their home. Meanwhile, Meena has grown into Sarita Choudhury, the second protagonist, a self-described masala of cultures. Like her father, Meena yearns to be free of Mississippi. One day, she gets into a fender bender with an African American carpet cleaner, Demetrius (Denzel Washington). The two bump into each other again at a nightclub, and begin dating. As the couple falls in love, both the Indian and African American communities react with shocked, racist indignation.

Now, even though the romance is more obviously the main narrative, Jay's story of forced migration is given equal weight in the film. Indeed, the film ends with Jay's story, Meena's having wrapped up several scenes earlier. This works well because the stories complement each other perfectly: both Jay and Meena are part of a fluid, transplated diaspora, and both come up against the over-simplifying use of skin color as a "defining" ethnic trait. As Jay says: "I am Ugandan first, Indian second." Meanwhile, Demetrius' layabout brother (Tico Wells) notes that Meena is just like them: an Indian who has never been to India, like they're Africans who have never been to Africa. Thus both Jay and Meena's story show how this cultural identification is often superficial and imposed: essentially, Jay and Meena are African and Demetrius is American, but their skin color confuses these definitions in onlookers' eyes.

Hey, it's this guy from Hero Hiralal and Sparsh!

Similarly, the way Jay and Meena react to these ethnic ambiguities is different. Jay still grieves for something his Ugandan friend, Okelo, told him in 1972: "Africa is for Africans. Black Africans." As Jay sees it, even with good will, "race" cannot be overcome - his best friend's ultimate betrayal demonstrated that. Jay becomes part of the problem, even, when he refuses to accept Demetrius on the basis of skin color. Yet Meena points out that despite Okele's words, his actions demonstrated a friendship and love that did surmount race. Indeed, when Jay returns to Uganda, Okele's sacrifice is confirmed. And Meena shows that "race" can be a hollow concept, as she chooses a relationship with Demetrius without hesitation or thought of their racial differences.

Well, it's not so hard to choose Denzel over your parents.

Okelo (Konga Mbandu) in Uganda.

It goes without saying that the acting is very good. As we've mentioned before, Roshan Seth really only worked in these sorts of postcolonial roles (can you imagine him in some naach-gaana?!), and he was great in them. He also lucked out in being given a couple of wonderful scenes, thanks mostly to the editing: both moments when Jay is transported back to Uganda via a photo or a phrase, and we have alternating shots of Roshan Seth looking distant, and a vibrant, Elysial Uganda of yore. These moments reminded us of Shashi Kapoor's excellent capability for registering shock.

In her first role, Sarita Choudhury was acceptable as Meena, though the real weight of the relationship came from Denzel Washington's gravitas. Had it been left up to Sarita, we don't think it would have been as compelling or believable - in a way, her rough edges showed. Denzel, however, was reliably good, and he was also charming as ever. The various other cast members - with some familiar faces from other 90s postcolonial and Bollywood films - were fine. We should note Konga Mbandu, who had the brief but critical role of Okelo. The scene when Jay and his family is leaving is heartwrenching, thanks mostly to Konga's obvious yet restrained suffering.

We highly recommend this film for any viewer, whether ye be a lover of Hindi cinema or not, as it touches on such universal themes of migration, home, and the flimisiness (or inflexibility?) of "ethnicity". Like My Son the Fanatic, it is intellectually stimulating and emotionally involving. Just lovely!

Tico Wells as Demetrius' younger brother.

The mighty Mississippi!

Memories of Uganda.


Sanket Vyas said...

To my knowledge this was one of the first Indian movies that showed the life of 'Americanized' Desis and it was a real eye-opener. To see what were my friends & family portrayed on the big screen was a definite culture shock from the standard Bollywood fare. I am of Gujarati heritage and we owned/lived in a motel back in the day so to see that life & hear Gujarati was really a treat.

I am impressed that Mira Nair got Denzel to act in her movie as he was fresh off his first Oscar win and in the middle of filming what should have been his second one in 'Malcolm X'. I agree that Saritaben was the weak spot in an otherwise strong movie.

The line about 'Indians never having been to India & Africans who have never been to Africa' still resonates today - especially with more & more kids being born to Indians who were essentially born & raised in this country.

a ppcc representative said...

How fascinating! Thanks for the really interesting comment. I've been looking for more NRI books/movies lately, because I think it's a really interesting and unexplored area. Do you know any? I was talking to some Fijians of Indian descent, and when I called them NRIs, they intimated that NRIs are "rich Indians in America and the UK" - i.e. not Indians in Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, etc... This was news to me! I thought NRI referred to anyone in the big Indian diaspora. Mississippi Masala was really interesting for that as well - it's the only instance I know of where we see the Indian-African experience too.

Anonymous said...

i have seen every single one of these movies a million times, they are just sooo amazing, i wanna watch them all again, sense im not doing anything this weekend, i think i will, but then again i never do anything over the weekend, casue i kinda dont have any friends, so i guess itll just be me and my popcorn again this weekend, and of course all of those amazing movies, but i just wish that i had some friends, that makes me really sad, im crying right now at the keyboard, and now my cat is walking on my desk and its making me kinda mad, i guess i should go and feed him, soo i should stop typing, but i just cant wiat till this weekend, soo i can watch movies again instead of actually having a social life, oh well, wow im really depressed