From Uganda to Mississippi

A retrospective on Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala

Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.

Filmmakers rarely broach unexplored and potentially complicated subject matter. Released in 1991, Mississippi Masala manages to examine the Indian community’s exile from Uganda in the early 70’s, an interracial relationship between a first-generation Indian girl and a black man in the American Deep South, and the relationship between three distinct communities — Indian, African American and white — in a region with a difficult history of racism. Yet it comes off effortless and deliberately avoids being heavy, focusing instead on artful scenarios that play on Indian tradition and conservatism, southern African American culture, assimilation in a new country, colourism and racial tensions in the South. The central story of the film is the love affair between an Indian girl, Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, and Demetrius, played by none other than Denzel Washington. It was an art house hit upon release, but even with Denzel as the leading man at the height of his acting prowess, it is not widely known today.

Director Mira Nair’s best-known films (Monsoon Wedding, Namesake) chronicle the Indian diaspora experience and tackle the complexities of identity, resettlement and transculturation. Raised in India, she transferred to Harvard from Dehli University in the mid 70’s, and after forays in theatre and photography found her passion in filmmaking. She conceived of Mississippi Masala after visiting the American South in the late 80’s and observing that many small motel businesses were operated by Indians. Thus began the incubation process for the film, and Nair and writing partner Sooni Taraporevala ventured south, interviewing hundreds of Indian motel owners. They researched the small-town life of African Americans and found parallels between the mores of those communities and those of their own in India — the emphasis on kinship, religion, tradition and marrying within the community. They also travelled to Uganda to interview Indians and collect source material for the central characters in Mississippi Masala.

The film begins in Uganda with a conversation between Jay, an Indian man, and Okello, his lifelong friend and confidant, an African. It is 1972. Right away we learn about the expulsion of Indians from Uganda by Idi Amin. Jay (Roshan Seth) is a successful lawyer and the target of persecution for speaking out against Amin on the radio. A rift develops between the friends when Okello tells Jay that times are changing, and that “Africa is for Africans — black Africans”. Still, Okello pleads with authorities and does his best to assist Jay and his family to stay in the country. Jay, along with many Indians, has roots in Uganda going back several generations. They are dispossessed of their land and property and exiled, severed from the only home they know. Nair illustrates this literally in the first few scenes when we witness busloads of Indians driven onto tarmac and forced to load onto planes, including Jay, his wife and infant daughter Meena. Jay and Okello are not reconciled, and their rift haunts Jay throughout his life and for the rest of the film.

Historically, a climate of xenophobia and resentment had reached its apex during Amin’s rule, where Indians were accused of exploitation and hoarding wealth by native Ugandans. Some Ugandan Indians settled in the American South, where they primarily operated small motel businesses.

We are transported to another world when the film resumes in Greenwood, Mississippi. After we are introduced to a grown and beautiful Meena, she rear ends a van that happens to belong to Denzel, or his character Demetrius, a black man who owns a carpet cleaning business, setting the foundation for a later meeting where a romance begins to flourish. Various complications arise when Meena’s parents and eventually Demetrius’ family disapprove of the union. Through their relationship the film examines race and racism between the Indian and African American communities, as more characters are drawn into the controversy of Meena and Demetrius’ affair.

The narrative poses numerous arcs. Jay, who was like a brother to an African in Okello and considers himself Ugandan, disapproves of his daughter’s union with a black man. In earlier scenes Indian and African American characters bond over being ‘people of colour’, then later fall out with each other over Meena and Demetrius, citing race as the reason. Interestingly, we learn in the beginning that Meena’s parents are apprehensive about their chances of finding her a good Indian suitor because of her own dark complexion. Though we see it through the lens of the Indian community in the film, colourism, where darker skinned people of the same racial group are discriminated against, is prevalent in Indian, African and African American culture. All of these dynamics are set against the backdrop of the Deep South, lurking as a silent character in the background, itself the nexus of a much graver and dense racial history. We are subtly reminded of this past, and the characters confront the hierarchy of class and status in their own time when Demetrius is forced to reapply for a business loan and when Jay and his business partner face a potential lawsuit.

With Meena’s parents the film conveys the sense of dislocation and of being uprooted from one’s homeland that accompanies emigration. Jay is consumed with suing the Ugandan government and retrieving his property, and never recovers from the trauma of exile — he is relegated from a wealthy lawyer in Uganda to a motel operator in the States. He, his wife and the older Indians are shown struggling with assimilation into a new culture. Meanwhile, Meena and the younger generation are entangled in the choreography of their hybrid identities, engaged in a dance of appropriation and compromise and improvisation along the way. The generational divide inevitably leads to conflict, and the old and young are forced to constantly negotiate what’s permissible in their culture in this new environment.

The biggest achievement of Mississippi Masala is that it succeeds at presenting these various themes casually in a lighthearted romantic comedy. It reflects with subtle nuance and detail the way people, consciously and unconsciously carrying in them the helices of intersecting histories, are relating to each other. Made 25 years ago, it is arguably more relevant today with the melange of diverse peoples who are forced to interpret one another and make new stories in new localities in pockets around the world. The on-going elimination of frontiers in our world continues to encourage these dynamic interactions, and capturing them is not always easy. Nair succeeds, reflecting the synergy of multiple cultures in a simple rom-com.