One of the many pleasures of running into a film one has watched, and liked, many years ago is discovering how it has travelled: I’m pleased to report that Mira Nair’s 1991 Mississippi Masala, which I caught at the recent I View Festival, has legs. Watching it today compels you to revisit the past, and to realise how pertinent it is even today.
A family of third-generation Indians in Kampala, Uganda, relocates to the US in the early ’70s. Jay and Kinnu, played by Roshan Seth and Sharmila Tagore, fetch up in Mississippi, a town many of their compatriots have made home. On a recce, Nair had discovered that many of the motels in the region were run by the Asians who had fled Idi Amin’s Uganda, and her film shines a light on the bigotry and racism rampant at the time.
One of the most telling elements on display is the complex dissemination of racism, and how it is experienced. Jay’s discomfort with his straitened circumstances is shown in his constant yearning to return to his comfortable, prosperous life as a lawyer in Kampala. His best friend, whom he grew up with as a child, is Black. But his daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury, vital, glowing) gravitating romantically towards Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a Black man born in the US, is not acceptable, neither to him, nor to the extended Indian community.
Finally, it all comes down to the colour of your skin. The African-American Demetrius who, along with his father, runs a modest carpet-cleaning operation, is looked down upon by the Indian community. The self-same bunch, in its hypocritical turn, is snarky about Mina’s dark complexion: which good “desi boy” (and said boy’s mother), will look upon Mina with favour? The local Whites are, of course, on top of the totem pole, then and now.
It’s not just the conservative desi community which closes ranks against “outsiders”. Ranjit Chowdhry and Mohan Agashe play familiar types: the former coming down heavy on those whom he employs, whether they are kin or not, and the latter a street-smart fellow who sweet-talks his pals out of trouble. And Nair herself comes on in a delightful cameo in which she is shown gossiping, and called, in the credits, “Gossip 1”.
Kinnu is pleased when a suitable desi boy wants to date Mina, but what can you do when your daughter wants to behave like Americans? Kinnu, like so many confused immigrants, forgets that her daughter, to all intents and purposes, is American. Then there is Demetrius’s family, discomfited by Mina’s “differentness”. The only way out is out: the two taking off, leaving behind their baggage of corrugated identities, provide the film an upbeat end. But also leave us wondering about how the pair fared, down the road.
Look around, in today’s India, and see the unspeakable difficulties young people of different faiths are experiencing in getting together. Is running away the only answer? And how far can you run? Nair is hoping to re-release the film this year, and it cannot come at a better time.