MOVIE REVIEW : Interracial Affair Spices ‘Mississippi Masala’


The initial scenes in “Mississippi Masala” (selected theaters), set in Uganda in 1972 just before Idi Amin expelled its Asian population, have an ecstatic openness. We understand immediately why the middle-class Indian family being forced to leave is so heartbroken. The lushness of the countryside, the vibrancy of the colors, are overpoweringly sensual, and the sudden danger in the air only adds to the vibrancy.

The power of these early scenes is like a mournful chord that resonates throughout the rest of the film, which jumps 18 years ahead to Greenwood, Miss., where the family has resettled after living in England.

Jay (Roshan Seth), a lawyer in Uganda, and his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury) have joined the extended wave of Indian immigrants to the Deep South who have largely taken over the roadside motel business.


The movie is about the furor that erupts when Mina falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a black man who runs his own carpet-cleaning company.

Masala is an Indian word for hot, mixed spices, and director Mira Nair and her screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala are free-form chefs. Their last collaboration was the near-great “Salaam Bombay!,” which drew much of its intensity from being filmed in the streets of Bombay. But, even with its documentary-like feel, “Salaam” was a slicker and more poised piece of work than “Mississippi Masala,” perhaps because Nair drew on a host of famous antecedents, including “Shoeshine,” “Pixote,” and the early films of Satyajit Ray.

“Mississippi Masala” (rated R for sensuality and language) is a less derivative work and, maybe for that reason, a more awkward one. It’s not much like any other movie; it’s trying to find its way, tentatively, and Nair introduces a great, new-to-movies subject--the transplanted Indian population in the Deep South.

But, having set up this community, she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The dramatic opportunities are skimped. We never really get the sense of how these exiled Indians mix it up with each other or, even more, with the surrounding black and white populations. (There are virtually no white characters in the film.)

Nair, in an attempt, perhaps, to downplay the voyeuristic, ethnographic aspects of the material, is too cavalier about the audience’s need to know. She doesn’t have the inclination, or, perhaps the technique, to really savor her hot-spiced masala .

But such are the fascinations of her subject that the film is often enthralling anyway. Despite the awkwardness of much of the staging, and the unevenness of the script, the movie does give you a sense of real people living real lives.

The romance between Mina and Demetrius, which is the film’s “Romeo and Juliet”-like centerpiece, is less resonant than the life that surrounds them. The ironies that pile up are astounding. For example, many of the Indians who, like Mina, grew up in Uganda have had little or no contact with India, and yet they remain intensely Indian.


In Mississippi, they are, in a sense, exiles twice removed, and it is this sense of exile from a homeland they never really knew that connects them to the blacks. And yet the color-caste system is still an issue between them: The Indians, because they are a lighter shade than the blacks, abhor the idea that Mina is romantically involved with Demetrius, whose own family then turns on her. (As Demetrius’ father, Joe Seneca has a lived-in richness.)

Washington has a powerful, no-nonsense quality that works well in the role. Because he has often been cast as a hero, his average-guy-struggling-to-get-by role here has a poignancy; we can see immediately that he has outgrown his situation, that he’s primed for greater things. Mina recognizes this in him, she’s flattered by his attentions, but mostly their attraction seems to be a matter of biological inevitability--they are simply the two most beautiful people in Greenwood.

Choudhury, a model who has never before acted professionally, doesn’t have a trained performer’s skills, but her girlish amateurishness is endearing. And she’s such a sensual camera presence that her beauty supplies what her acting doesn’t: a lush sense of mystery.

A few of the other actors supply this sense of mystery too. The great Sharmila Tagore--she starred in three of Ray’s greatest films--can create an entire universe of pain and longing in a single sidelong glance at her errant daughter. Seth (he played the papa in “My Beautiful Laundrette”) makes Jay’s longing for Uganda so palpable that it seems like a soul ache.

The motivation for Jay’s resentment of Demetrius is rather dubiously tied to a painful split Jay suffered with his best friend, a black man in Uganda who turned on him when Amin ordered the expulsion of all Asians. Because he was a liberal lawyer in Uganda who defended blacks, Jay’s racial turnaround in Mississippi doesn’t quite compute. One look at Seth’s elegant, principled features and you realize his situation is more complex than this film can accommodate.

But when Jay finally makes it back to Uganda after almost 20 years, he’s transformed by his ardor. For a brief moment, all things are possible for him. He has released himself from his own inner exile, and his transcendence lights up the screen.


‘Mississippi Masala’

Denzel Washington: Demetrius

Sarita Choudhury: Mina

Roshan Seth: Jay

Sharmila Tagore: Kinnu

A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release of a Cinecom Entertainment Group presentation in association with Odyssey/Cinecom International of a Mirabi Films production in association with Movieworks. Director Mira Nair. Producers Nair, Michael Nozik. Co-producer Mitch Epstein. Executive producer Cherie Rodgers. Screenplay Sooni Taraporevala. Cinematographer Ed Lachman. Editor Roberto Silvi. Costumes Ellen Lutter, Susan Lyall, Kinnari Panikar. Production design Epstein. Art director Jefferson Sage. Set decorator Jeannette Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

Rated R (sensuality and language).