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Pet Sins September 2001

Mississippi Masala

Acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair enters previously uncharted waters in this 1991 film. Mississippi Masala traces the emotional and physical journey of a ethnic South Asian family from Uganda to the United States. Jay, an ethnic Indian man born in Uganda, flees to the United States in 1972 when Asian Ugandans were expelled from the country. Although he appears to be comfortable settled in his new country, with a closely-knit extended family at hand, Jay remains haunted by memories of his native land. He has flashbacks of his rejection at the hands of his best friend, a native Ugandan.

In the present, things are further complicated when Jay's daughter (Sarita Choudhury) falls in love with an African American man (Denzel Washington) who cleans carpets for the family's motel chain.The film's rare interracial couple - African American male/South Asian female - is probably the first black-Asian couple to appear on movie screens worldwide. (Mississippi Masala was released internationally.) It could very well be the first time such tender and yet unabashed love scenes feature a black-Asian couple. American directors tend to steer clear of any concrete depictions of sensuality between black men and Asian women. But an Asian director has touched what Americans avoid with Mississippi Masala.

Towards the end of the film, Jay visits Uganda to find his best friend, and seek a sense of closure. The Ugandan best friend, the symbol of his link with his birth country, had passed away. Jay speedily concludes, "home is where the heart is" (referring to his family in the U.S.). It seems Jay's internal conflict about his birth country's rejection of his Asian self was resolved a little too easily. A weak ending for an artistically decent film.

Director Mira Nair met her Ugandan Indian husband while doing interviews in preperation for the making of Mississippi Masala. See Mira Nair Celebrates Life Through Cinema on allafrica.com for more.