In Mira Nair’s sweet, sexy film from 1991, an Indian American woman falls for a Black cleaner played charmingly, as ever, by Denzel Washington.
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Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” begins with a bit of family history that is also a history lesson — the expulsion of Uganda’s sizable South Asian population, ordered from the country by the military strongman Idi Amin in 1972.
A prize winner at the 1991 Venice Film Festival, still fresh and newly relevant, “Mississippi Masala” has been restored for a run at the IFC Center in Manhattan, starting Friday.
After a vivid prologue, the movie jumps ahead 18 years to pick up on its displaced central family, resettled in Greenwood, Miss. Jay (Roshan Seth), a barrister in Uganda, manages a hot-sheet motel while his wife, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore, the star of Satyajit Ray’s “Devi,” among other films), runs the adjacent liquor store.
Jay still dreams of Uganda; Kinnu is more resigned to exile. Their daughter, Meena (Sarita Choudhury), who cleans rooms at the motel, is beyond that — so robustly American she could stand in for the Statue of Liberty, albeit Liberty in chains. “I’m 24 years old, and I’m still here — stuck here,” she tells her uncomprehending parents.
Luckily, Meena is also a reckless driver. Early on she rear-ends the van belonging to a carpet-cleaning business run by straight-arrow but cool Demetrius (Denzel Washington). It is “the first in a series of collisions,” the New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted in his favorable review, between her world and his.
As its title suggests, “Mississippi Masala” is a movie of continuous juxtaposition. The first is a cut from Uganda’s verdant paradise to a Piggly Wiggly’s consumer cornucopia in America. Another follows a flashback to the family’s hilltop villa in Uganda with the mock plantations of wealthy Greenwood. Nair came out of documentary filmmaking, and thanks to Ed Lachman’s vibrant cinematography, in “Mississippi Masala” the landscapes are also characters.
There’s a documentary aspect to the cast as well. Choudhury, a neophyte who grew up in Jamaica where her father was a biologist, is playing a version of herself (at one point she wears a Bob Marley T-shirt). She was so close to the part that, despite the movie’s success, it took her some time to start an acting career. (Most recently, she was featured in the “Sex and the City” reboot, “And Just Like That.”) Washington, a decade older, already awarded an Oscar for best supporting actor, can be seen as guiding her through the film.
Hoping to avoid a lawsuit, the wealthier Indians seek to make common cause with Greenwood’s Black population. Meena’s connection is more profound. “You’re like us,” Demetrius’s younger brother tells her. “You’ve never been to India. We’ve never been to Africa.” Meena and Demetrius are both cleaners and correspondingly low-caste. Both must escape family obligations and transcend tribal prejudices. A stolen weekend in Biloxi and a motel room fight sets the phone lines buzzing, involves the Chamber of Commerce and an arraignment before a judge.
The pop iconography of chain restaurants, motels and gas stations (as well as Hindu shrines) is characteristic of 1980s independent films. But Nair’s storybook ending is more ’90s, recalling the post-Cold War golden age when it seemed that American notions of “freedom” and self-invention reigned supreme.
Opens Friday at IFC Center, Manhattan, ifccenter.com
‘Mississippi Masala’: A Love Story Among the Displaced – The New York Times