Romance proves neither frictionless nor too rosy in 1991’s Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s buoyant and freshly restored treatment of two working-class lovers drawn together across cultural lines. But chemistry comes easier, and abides stubbornly once found. In making space for this while leaving little doubt as to its central pair’s connection, the film trades off some suspense for a sprawling local and international communal portrait: one critically unflinching and critical in a manner granted authority through a sense of intimate familiarity. By making this exchange, Nair’s direction allows for its performers to radiate heat at the film’s center while straining the bonds between identity and geography, culture and self-conception in doing so: both within and beyond their own lives.
Despite what its title suggests, Mississippi Masala opens in Uganda, briefly introducing a small family there (father, mother, daughter) with ancestral and cultural roots in India but a fine and stable lot carved out since their predecessors arrived in Africa, where they performed the grueling work of building railways. Despite overcoming so many burdens accompanying this harsh history, they’re all expelled alongside many non-Black Africans by real-life dictator Idi Amin, and move to join relatives who run a small motel chain in the American South shortly after.
This act of forced displacement — which rhymes explicitly in the script with various legacies of the transatlantic slave trade — leaves Jay, the family patrtiarch (Roshan Seth) traumatized for decades after. Despite this psychic tumult, which sees him writing letters requesting restoration of Ugandan citizenship each month, his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and now-grown daughter Mina (Sarita Chouhury) have acclimated far better to their new life. Kinnu now runs a liquor store, having come to terms with the rhythms of American small-town life, and finds comfort in their diasporic community. Mina, meanwhile, at 24, has grown increasingly anxious to push beyond the constructive (and romantically prescriptive) social boundaries of this close-knit bubble even as she’s found much to love within it.
Before long, this leads her to collide with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) — first by accident and soon more deliberately, that second time at the Leopard Lounge, one of few local clubs around. There, in a luminous scene that stands in for the film’s broader motifs of moving beyond the familiar and accounted-for, she finds Demetrius dancing beside her and catches his attention, neglecting the company of the parentally vetted South Asian prospect she came out with. In moving to the dance floor on her own, she assimilates into a local (and nearly all-Black) scene while leaving nothing behind of herself. As in the rest of Mississippi Masala, discarding or rejecting one’s own identity or roots is never really on the table; the question instead is of how best to balance a community’s needs against one’s own, finding a way within a complex web of prejudice and need to move freely through the world.
For Mina, this is a necessary conflict, and the rewards of her assertion of her desires — a literal act of stepping out — arrive both immediately and obviously. While Demetrius and Mina’s connection doesn’t occur in a vacuum, each is mediated by their separate cultural and romantic contexts, with Mina attempting to distance herself from her controlling family and Demetrius showing off to an old flame. Nor does this initial spark blossom into full-blown love immediately, but their chemistry remains undeniable. In public, as over a modest romantic getaway to coastal Biloxi, they seem to want to touch each other even when they can’t; in more private moments, these desires come to tense but eager, at times teasing and at others courteous forms of fruition. In coming together, they’re honoring their own feelings but transgressing against something larger, testing the flexibility of the communities they’re each a part of. Even when romancing in secret, these realities don’t completely go away, and that friction — a trope in a well-tested genre which has long treated affairs shadowed by disapproval — is contested quite convincingly by the strength of their affections.
These would-be escapist moments and Masala’s other scenes are sold not only by the performers or Nair’s direction, but by director of photography Edward Lachman’s work. A frequent and versatile collaborator with Todd Haynes (on works as varied as Far From Heaven, Dark Waters, and Mildred Pierce), his technique here makes the film’s still-novel prevailing palette (wrought largely from rich golds and greens and oranges) infuse each whole frame set in Mississippi through delicate combinations of filters and light. The result, surely buttressed by the film’s new restoration, is a persistent sense of atmosphere — but one whose source, meanings, and embedded sentiments seem at times impossible to pin down.
Such mysteries lie at the heart of most young romances, but they’re a part of culture, too — a force whose influence exerts something like a mood, shaping what we all seek from and believe possible within our respective lives. As in the case of each family (though especially Mina’s) here, it shapes what people think possible or appropriate just as much within the lives of those they feel close to, whether through resentment or deep familial love. Addressing all this with a dexterity in tone and an abundance of good humor, Nair showcases the ways that anyone’s family, as well as individual or collective history, can become either boon or albatross, coloring and shaping the routines and feelings of daily life.
As Masala’s romance becomes increasingly tangled, drawing communities together that had previously stayed largely apart, the stakes of these cultural tensions become more than abstract, lending continuity to the film’s opening explorations of expulsion, rejection, and culturally fraught struggles to make a home. Amid all this — a treatment of racism at its core — Nair and screenwriter and frequent creative partner Sooni Taraporevala’s handling can seem almost strenuously even-handed, very nearly too even and fair. By the end, though, this seems less a matter of absent conviction than an expression of a filmmaker alive to possibility and a sense that, when given the right reasons to, we can all push through an awful lot.
Mississippi Masala will be screened 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 26, at the Detroit Film Theatre at 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org.