Masala is the Hindi word for a pungent mixture of spices. And by curious coincidence, it appears in the titles of two groundbreaking movies by Indian-born directors: Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and Srinivas Krishna’s Masala. Nair, 34, a Harvard-educated film-maker now based in New York
City, won acclaim in 1988 with her Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay!, a documentary-style drama about slum children. With Mississippi Masala, she has cast a charismatic star, Denzel Washington, and an enchanting newcomer, Sarita Choudhury, in a gently exhilarating tale of inter-racial romance. Krishna’s Masala is a smaller, less accomplished film. But it represents a remarkable feature debut for its Toronto-based director, a 27-yearold novice who also served as its writer, co-producer and star. A swirl of satire, drama, fable and farce, Masala’s unorthodox recipe makes Mississippi Masala seem almost like Hollywood fare. But in different ways, both movies offer evocative—and provocative—excursions into North America’s Indian diaspora.
Mississippi Masala is a story of star-crossed love between Mina (Choudhury), the Ugandan-born daughter of an Indian family living in Mississippi, and Demetrius (Washington), a black American who runs his own carpet-cleaning business. They are both, as another character observes, from places they have never been to: his ancestry goes back to Africa, hers to India. And amid the racism of the Deep South, they are both dispossessed.
The narrative begins in 1972, with the expulsion of Mina’s family from Uganda when she is a child. Her Ugandan-born parents are descendants of Indian laborers who were imported by the British to build the East African railway in the late 1800s. Mina’s father, Jay (Roshan Seth), is a prosperous Kampala lawyer who takes his African birthright for granted. But under the harsh rule of Idi Amin, he—like thousands of other Indian Ugandans—is forced to emigrate.
Cut to 1990, and to Greenwood, Miss. Mina is now 24, living with her family in one of the many Indian-run motels that line the roadways of the southern states. She meets Demetrius literally by accident, driving into the back of his
van, and they begin a clandestine affair. Her parents are scandalized when they find out— they still cling to traditional Indian values, and bear a lingering grudge against blacks after what happened in Uganda. As Mina’s family conspires to ruin their romance, Demetrius fights for his dignity, telling her father, “Your
skin is just a few shades lighter than mine.”
Like last year’s Jungle Fever, Spike Lee’s controversial movie about sex across the color bar, Mississippi Masala is a Romeo and Juliet fable of havoc wreaked by intolerance. But instead of portraying racism in black-and-white terms, Nair’s film explores the politics of complexion in all their complexity. And unlike Jungle Fever, an excoriating drama that revolves around a loveless liaison, Nair’s movie is a love story in which passion dominates.
Despite its serious themes and historical
background, Mississippi Masala rolls along with a buoyant sense of comic whimsy. Nair uses a variety of stock characters to parody cultural myopia in the Indian community— sometimes to the point of undermining the drama. But the movie is a romance at heart, and Nair directs her two co-stars with an evenhanded eroticism. Washington reveals a quality of tenderness that he has never shown before: the camera adores him. Choudhury, an Indian who grew up with a masala of influences in England, Jamaica, Mexico, Italy and Canada (she attended Queen’s University), is a striking presence. Acting in her first feature, she projects strength and emotional candor.
Like Choudhury, Mississippi Masala seems utterly fresh and charming. But it is also profoundly interesting. Filmed in both Mississippi and Uganda, the first movie to be shot there since The African Queen (1951), it captures the exotic character of locations that are worlds apart, yet strangely linked. And on the sound track, a colorful braid of Indian music, Delta blues and African drums ties it all together.
Krishna’s Masala is confined to Toronto’s Indian community. But the ingredients are just as rich. The director plays a knife-wielding delinquent who has lost his family in a plane crash reminiscent of the 1985 Air India disaster. Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey, who has starred in such films as Gandhi (1982) and A Passage to India (1984), portrays three different characters: a sleazy sari merchant, a meek mailman who collects stamps and a blue-skinned Hindu deity who pops up on television to answer a grandmother’s prayers.
The movie presents an intricate blend of subplots. The sari merchant collaborates with Sikhs in a smuggling plot while courting the favor of a smarmy cabinet minister. With a hand from the deity, the mailman discovers a stamp worth half a million dollars, then refuses to sell it. And the angry young man played by the director falls for the mailman’s daughter, a medical student who secretly dreams of becoming a commercial pilot.
I There is a lot of airplane imagery in & Masala, as well as giddy allusions to § Indian movie musicals and folktales. 5 The result is a surreal concoction that serves as an amusing satire of the multicultural dream. But Krishna has found it difficult to get his movie distributed. It has been banned in India for alleged blasphemy. And so far, its Canadian release has been limited to downtown art cinemas. Krishna, however, says that his film’s ideal audience is in the suburbs, where it is largely set. Rare explorations of the Indian presence in North America, both Masala and the more mainstream Mississippi Masala offer welcome relief from Hollywood’s white-bread diet.
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