MOVIES : Salaam Mississippi ! : India-born filmmaker Mira Nair, director of ‘Salaam Bombay!,’ tackles a love story (without a white point of view) in the South

<i> David Gritten is a free-lance writer based in London</i>

When Mira Nair was in Hollywood 18 months ago trying to raise funds for her movie “Mississippi Masala,” she ran into a predictable set of prejudices. The film proved a tough sell because of its subject matter--an interracial romance set in the Deep South between an Indian immigrant girl born in Uganda and a young African-American who runs a two-man carpet cleaning business.

It seemed irrelevant that the Indian-born Nair, 34, had caused an international sensation with her first feature film, 1988’s “Salaam Bombay!” The film, a moving and often harrowing account of a young country boy’s adventures among the thieves, prostitutes and drug dealers of Bombay’s slums, won prizes at the Cannes and Montreal film festivals and was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar.

The problem Hollywood had with “Mississippi Masala,” which opens Wednesday, Nair found, was its lack of a white point of view. “People were disconcerted that we had no white characters (among the 79 speaking parts) in the film,” she recalls. “One (executive) asked if I couldn’t make room for a white protagonist.”

At this, Nair could not resist a sly dig. “I said, sure, all the waiters in the film could be white,” she recounted, smiling at the memory. “At which point we both laughed and shook hands. But I felt strongly about it.”

Nair and the film’s screenwriter, Sooni Taraporevala (who had also written “Salaam Bombay!”), conceived of “Mississippi Masala” as a rich multicultural mix. (The very word masala means a collection of hot spices of varying colors.) Oscar-winner Denzel Washington was cast in the lead, and shooting took place on two continents, in Greenwood, Miss., and Kampala, Uganda.


“We felt the story had to be told in the voices of the people it was about,” she said. “It’s about time one can see the world not necessarily through a white person’s point of view.”

The same strictures, she says, will not apply to future films. “I would love one day to be able to work with, oh, Jodie Foster or Glenn Close, great actors. But only when I have the right vehicle for them.”

Nair eventually raised her money, just under $7 million, from a variety of sources, including British TV’s Channel 4, which put up half the money for “Salaam Bombay!” and has supported her, in her words, “since I was nobody.” The film is being released in this country by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. That $7 million seems low by Hollywood standards, “an epic on a peanut,” as Nair puts it, yet “Salaam Bombay!” was shot for just $800,000. The difference, Nair says, “is that on ‘Mississippi Masala,’ at least I knew I had the money to shoot, cut and finish the film. On ‘Salaam’ I had no such security. I didn’t always know if I had the cash to shoot the following day. I used to say ‘Salaam’ was shot on the cocaine budget of a Hollywood movie.”

“When I made ‘Salaam,’ ” she says, “I clearly demonstrated one thing--that I make good, competent films without necessarily needing millions.”

For Nair’s next project, an epic on Buddha, the Hong Kong-based Waco Productions has announced a budget of $36 million.

Nair visited England last month for the premiere of “Mississippi Masala,” and based herself in this attractive rural town because of its proximity to the home of veteran screenwriter Robert Bolt (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for All Seasons”), who is writing “Buddha.” Over lunch in Midhurst’s Spread Eagle Hotel, a historic inn dating back to 1430, Nair, a friendly, vivacious woman with a dry sense of humor, outlined her plans for “Buddha.” She will be casting in England and the United States , and expects to go to India in March. Shooting should start in India in August.

Hers is not the only Buddha project. Producer Jeremy Thomas and director Bernardo Bertolucci, the team who made “The Last Emperor” and “The Sheltering Sky,” expect to start shooting “Little Buddha” in August or September, with a script by Rudy Wurlitzer. Waco Productions first asked Bertolucci to direct its Buddha film, but negotiations broke off in 1990. “Little Buddha” is now the subject of a London lawsuit brought by Waco and based on Bertolucci’s alleged (but denied) misuse of information given to him while he negotiated with Waco.

A court date is set for July next year, but Thomas, contacted by phone in New York, doubts that the case would ever go to court. “I’m not worried about it,” he said. “It’s a storm in a teacup. Ours is such a completely different film,” he said. “Theirs is a historical epic. Ours is quite another approach to the subject. And Buddha is such a huge project. I think their legal claim is silly. The two films can be made harmoniously.”

“It’s a pity,” said Nair. “Bernardo (Bertolucci) is a friend, and I can’t say much because of the lawsuit. But the ocean is vast, and we both have a place in it.”

Nair mostly stays away from Hollywood, preferring to travel the world either raising money for her films or visiting international film festivals to drum up support for her work. In conversation, she names other independent filmmakers and producers such as Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee as friends. Jarmusch, she says, describes their travels in support of their own movies as “rape-and-pillage tours.”

The size of the “Buddha” project and her growing reputation do not alarm her. “I’m pretty pragmatic,” she says. “I think I can see the wood for the trees. It’s nice to stay in good hotels and eat good food, but I don’t think I’m seduced by all of that.” In “Buddha,” she concedes, “the marriages of vast epic landscapes and small moments could make the screen sing. But I think the essence of cinema is often in the smallest moments, not necessarily in grand spectacle.”

he story in “Mississippi Masala” spans 18 years and starts in Kampala in 1972, when dictator Idi Amin expelled the Asian community from Uganda. At this point, the film’s heroine Mina is just 6 years old, and has already formed attachments to the Africans in her surroundings. .

She and her family flee to England, but soon end up in Mississippi, where a large number of Indian families run motels. Her romance with the serious-minded young black man Demetrius (Denzel Washington) seems completely natural to her, but the liaison causes a scandal in both communities.

“In my perception there is a great deal of commonality between the black and brown communities in Mississippi,” Nair notes. “It’s interesting that here are these people who regard themselves as Indian, though many have never been to India. And compare that with the American blacks who think of Africa as a homeland but have never been there either.”

Nair cast a non-actress, Sarita Choudhury, as Mina. Raised in Jamaica with a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, Choudhury, a film student in Canada, was modeling in England when casting director Suzy Figgis discovered her.

By this time, Nair already had a commitment from Washington, whom she characterizes as “an intelligent man and a consummate actor. He’s effortlessly sexy. I think he took the part because it would be such a departure for him. I told him he might find it difficult playing a homeboy along with all those great black heroes like Steve Biko and Malcolm X.” Washington played Biko in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom,” and will portray Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s coming film biography of the Black Muslim leader.

“In fact, his input was valuable. He read the script and told Sooni and me that it was obvious we knew a lot about the lives of the Indian community in Mississippi, but he felt we should flesh out his character and show a little more of the black community too. And he was right.”

Whatever the eventual reception accorded to “Mississippi Masala,” it will always be a significant film for Nair. While shooting in Uganda, she met, fell in love with and married Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of political science. The couple have made their permanent home in Kampala, but when she is traveling, Nair takes along her baby son Zohran, whose name means “emerging star.”

Nair grew up in what she calls “a small, hick town” in the Indian state of Orissa. She attended Delhi University, and also worked there as an amateur actress. In 1976 she went to Harvard as an undergraduate, and discovered filmmaking.

She made four documentaries, dealing in one way or another with alienation from mainstream Indian society. Her 1985 film “India Cabaret,” a portrait of strippers in a Bombay nightclub, first won her international recognition.

But “Salaam Bombay!,” she recalls, seemed such an unlikely proposition that she could not even find a distributor for it in India. “All the distributors said there were no (Indian) film stars in it, and it would never be a success,” she said. “Another thing was that I didn’t shoot inside a studio. They thought I was crazy because I had shot out on the streets. But the streets of Indian cities are wonderful locations! They’re wild and crazy and unpredictable.

“So I found a distributor who was a complete neophyte, and he ended up being a big success with it. It played 27 weeks in Bombay, which was extraordinary.”

Nair immediately became India’s second-best known filmmaker, after Satyajit Ray, whose early films had greatly influenced her. “I used to go and show him my early movies. I’d go along to his house with my projector under my arm, and show them on his veranda.”

Now, Nair finds herself amused at the kinds of films she has been offered in the wake of “Salaam Bombay!” “It seemed that I was offered anything which had any connection with India,” she said. “I was offered a lot of pictures about children. And a lot of women’s pictures.”

She also wanted to stay well away from Indian-themed movies made in the West. “Being Indian and seeing those epics made by foreigners, all those endless ‘heat and dust’ films,” she sighed. “At best, they offer a sanitized version of our culture. I’m hoping our Buddha will be different. My understanding of the country will make it come alive, rather than be treated as some precious exotica.

“Robert and I are not interested in deifying (Buddha). We want to be as authentic as possible, yet treat the story in a contemporary way. Buddha says you have to find your own way, because no one will show it to you. There’s a saying, ‘Be ye a lamp unto yourself.’ That’s a timeless message.”