Mississippi Masala is a film that seems to have somehow fallen through the cracks of early ’90s independent cinema, but thankfully Criterion’s new release should help fix that. It’s an early film from Indian-American director Mira Nair, who is probably best known for 2001’s Monsoon Wedding, which also have a Criterion release in the US. Along with Ricochet, it was also the last film Denzel Washington did before he took a year off for researching and eventually filming of Malcolm X, which is the defining role of his career.
The film is centred on an interracial love story, with some shades of Romeo & Juliet but, in a rare twist in American cinema, neither of the couple are white. Sarita Choudhury plays Mina, the daughter of Ugandan Indians who fled Uganda after Idi Amin enacted a policy of forcefully expelling Asians soon after gaining power. The family ends up in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Mina’s parents generally associate with other Indians in their close-knit community. Mina, however, is fully assimilated into American life and has a diverse circle of friends, and soon falls head over heels for the local self-employed carpet-cleaner Demetrius (Denzel Washington), who is African-American. Their communities are at loggerheads and really can’t see eye to eye: given the treatment they received from Amin’s regime, Mina’s family have some pent-up racism towards Blacks. The father also still dreams of going back to Uganda.
The performances from the two leads are great—you all know Denzel is always fantastic so that’s no big surprise, but the chemistry between the two is out of his world. You totally buy their relationship, and their infatuation with each other. Roshan Seth is very good as Mina’s father, who stepped in after Ben Kingsley dropped out and is better suited for the part. Kingsley’s departure made the original financiers drop the film, but casting Washington as Demetrius got Nair on track to get new funding for the film. It just shows how much of indie filmmaking at a certain level is down to star power.
Mississippi Masala is really worth seeking out, because the performances are outstanding. Washington might not necessarily be your first choice for romantic leading man due to his body of work, but he clearly has the looks and the charm to pull it off wonderfully. Sarita Choudhury should’ve been a huge star off the back of this, and still pops up in interesting films today, like After Yang or The Green Knight. It’s an intelligent romantic drama that isn’t too syrupy, and is a very welcome twist on the interracial love story.
The Criterion release features a new audio commentary from Nair; a new conversation between Choudhury and film critic Devika Girish; plus interviews with director of photography Ed Lachman, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, and production designer and photographer Mitch Epstein. The booklet contains an essay from Bilal Qureshi and excerpts from Nair’s production journal.