Mississippi Masala (1992) is a film that tells the story of an Asian Indian family’s expulsion from Uganda and relocation to the middle of the Mississippi Delta and the interracial love affair that results. In 1972 Ugandan dictator Idi Amin confiscated the property of thousands of his nation’s Indian-descended residents and expelled them as punishment for “sabotaging the economy of Uganda.” In the film, an attorney, Jay (Roshan Seth), and his wife, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), leave behind a well-appointed residence for the small cotton-dominated community of Greenwood, where Jay manages a run-down motel and Kinnu operates a liquor store. Mississippi Masala was directed by Mira Nair and filmed on location in Kampala, Uganda, and Greenwood.
A minor automobile accident in downtown Greenwood brings together the Indian family’s daughter, Mina (Sarita Choudhury), and Demetrius (Denzel Washington), an African American who makes his living by cleaning carpets. They soon begin dating, much to the disapproval of Mina’s parents, who expect her to marry within the Indian community although they have also told her that her skin is too dark for her to be a desirable wife. Mina ignores her parents’ directive to have no further contact with Demetrius.
Demetrius’s African American relatives initially are most hospitable to Mina at a backyard picnic. However, after Mina’s relatives discover the couple in a Biloxi motel room, the lovers are shunned by the entire Greenwood community—Indians, African Americans, and whites. The bonds among the city’s black, white, and Asian communities go no deeper than economics, and each group is generally unconcerned about the other until the two young people fall in love, when racism returns to the surface. Despite the fact that his boycotted carpet-cleaning business suffers deeply and the bank considers repossessing his van, Demetrius remains loyal to Mina.
Mina’s father remains obsessed with regaining his Ugandan property, and he eventually returns to his homeland, but his visit is hollow, since his Ugandan friend, Okelo (Konga Mbandu), a schoolteacher whom Jay shunned as he was fleeing the country, has died. “I never said goodbye to him,” Jay laments. Mississippi Masala ends with Demetrius dancing through a Delta cotton field with Mina in his arms.
“The movie is about people who, having survived . . . upheavals, nevertheless have no curiosity about those outside their own social and racial circles—and about a few who do,” wrote critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Rita Kempley of the Washington Post described Mississippi Masala as “a ‘West Side Story’ for the ’90s.” The movie features much local color, including a trip down the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Greenwood and a look inside the curtained private booths at Lusco’s, a downtown restaurant opened by Italian immigrants.
The Indian word masala describes a blend of spices that is often added to savory dishes such as curries.
- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (14 February 1992)
- Internet Movie Database website, www.imdb.com
- Rita Kempley, Washington Post (14 February 1992)