There’s a scene halfway through “Mississippi Marsala” where Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury are talking.
The two were lying on their respective beds with the phone in their ear. He fiddled with the placket with his hands, revealing his soft belly. Her hair runs carelessly through her hair; the camera moves down her leg.
The two characters — Washington’s Demetrius and Choudhury’s Mina — are miles apart in the set, with little contact. Still, tensions continue.
“One of the things I keep hearing now is that it’s one of the sexiest movies ever made,” director Miranelle told us with a laugh. “And everyone agreed on discussing the phone scene.”
Nair’s “Mississippi Marsala” first came out in 1991, and it became something of a cult classic — but in recent years, it’s actually been hard to find copies of it. Now, the Criterion Collection has released a 4K digital restoration of the film overseen by Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also being shown in theaters across the country to new audiences across the country.
The premise of “Mississippi Marsala” is as simple as it is complex. At the heart of the film is a love story between a young Indian woman born in Uganda and an African-American carpet cleaner who never left Mississippi. But Nair uses the love story to draw attention to some difficult realities: pointing out racism, racism, anti-Blackness, classism and xenophobia, while also raising questions about humanity and identity.
After all, what Do Does it mean come from a place? What is home? What is a sense of belonging? What is race? Somehow, “Mississippi Masala” delved into it all — and deftly avoided any superficial sermon.
Nair’s experience as a Harvard student sets the stage for the film. Her arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts marked her first departure from her native India, where she found herself living between the school’s black and white communities. Both let her in, but she felt the boundaries between the two. That’s how the idea behind “Mississippi Marsala” originally grew.
Later, she learned that the deportation Asian from Ugandaand Indians who moved to Mississippi because it was one of the only places they could afford their own business, especially motel. The outline of the film’s story begins to take shape.
This history piqued Nair’s interest. These Indians left Africa, never knowing that India was their homeland, to one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Africa became their home.
“What a bizarre historical trick this could be,” she thought at the time.
Mina’s family is based on Indians who were deported from Uganda and worked in Mississippi motels. Throughout the film, Nair reveals the connection between Mina’s community and Demetrius’ African-American ancestry.
Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala – who wrote two of Nair’s other films, “The Same Name” and “Mumbai Salam!” ” – a months-long trip in the South, staying in an Indian-owned motel, and meeting real-life people who would influence the script. Nair interviewed thousands of Ugandan exiles, she said, and the two also traveled to the East African country to meet some who refused to leave or began to return.
The attention to detail throughout the film is plentiful. But it eschews some of the more sinister elements of its theme, and even broadcasts some more racist moments to tease. For example, two recurring racist white characters who keep confusing Indians with Native Americans by saying things like “send them back to the reservation” – this is Nair and Tara Porewara on the road Experience.
“It’s so fun to paint the reality we live in compared to anything else, but it’s a portrait of ignorance that completely forgets what the reality of the world is,” Nair said.
Urmila Seshagiri, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has been teaching “Mississippi Masala” in her class for more than two decades. But before she became a professor, she was an excited college student—she drove from Oberlin College to Cleveland to watch a movie at an art gallery.
“It was amazing to see an Indian woman in a feature film at the time,” Seshagiri told CNN.
A few months later, she also took her parents to see the movie. Decades have passed, but she remembers the audience in that theater: black people on one side, Indians on the other.
The standard re-release of the film speaks to its enduring activism. Seshagiri cites an early moment in the film as an example: When Mina’s family moves from Uganda to Mississippi, their journey is depicted on a map. As the camera moves from Uganda to the UK, the journey is accompanied by a soundtrack of Indian classical flutes – which then evolve into blues instruments reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. It was a subtle shift, but a wonderful one, she said.
“It really speaks to the film’s insistence that no one is just one thing,” Seshagiri said. “Identities are always plural; they are always mixed, and no one is truly or unified one thing or the other.”
This nuance is still rarely portrayed in Hollywood today. Even just putting together the histories of enslaved people in the United States and colonial subjects of the British Empire is profound—suggesting that the stories may be closer than what history textbooks reveal, Seshagiri said.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of that relationship, either. In one scene, Washington’s Demetrius confronts Mina’s father, played by Roshan Seth, after some Indian motel owners boycott his business.
“I know you and your guys can come down from God knows where, black like the ace of spades, and once you’re here, you start playing white. Treat us like your doormat,” Washington said. He pointed to his cheek. “I know you and your daughter are not far from here. I know.”
Nair said that while the film was a success, “nobody, really nobody” wanted to fund it.
Her first film, “Salaam Bombay!” was a huge hit at the time – winning some of the most coveted film awards, winning the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. Nair recalled that when people heard she was working on a second film, they wanted to meet her. She has Denzel Washington.
Yet even the most progressive were hesitant, Nair said, to ask her to make room for the white protagonist.
“I promise all the waiters in this movie are white,” she would say. They would laugh nervously; she would laugh. Then she will be taken to the door.
“They want to make something else (the movie), not what it’s going to be,” Nair told CNN. “So it’s not easy, it’s really not easy.”
Ultimately, Cinecom, which funded and distributed “Salaam Bombay!” gritted its teeth. But by Hollywood standards, the budget was tight: just $5 million, about half of what she asked for.
Today, women of color filmmakers and TV creators are more common: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Chloé Zhao and Ava DuVernay are all known to varying degrees of acclaim. Still, in the 1990s, the filmmaking environment was still very masculine, very old-school and very white, Seshagiri said. And “Mississippi Marsala” — With its dual locations and multi-generational cast from different countries – it’s largely the opposite.
“For Miranair, directing a feature film and winning an international award was groundbreaking,” she said. “I mean, it’s incredible.”
The fact that a movie like “Mississippi Marsala” even exists is almost a miracle.but Neil is not Work in a vacuum.
Seshagiri said the film’s release coincides with a breakthrough period for films where minority and immigrant communities are in dialogue with each other, rather than in contrast to the white majority. Spike Lee’s “Doing the Right Thing” precedes “Mississippi Marsala,” followed by Gurind Chada’s “Budge on the Beach” and Ang Lee’s “Wedding Banquet.” All movies are played in a similar space.
“These films…really make minority characters complex and multi-dimensional,” Seshagiri said. “They don’t have to represent the whole group. These characters can be funny or sexy, even if they’re going through a real problem or feeling real pain.”
Other films released in the same year as “Mississippi Marsala” raised similar questions of belonging. Seshagiri points to Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.” While they’re not immigrant films like Nair’s films, she says they address how we connect within and outside of families or local and national collectives.
“Mississippi Marsala” received positive reviews from major media outlets and critics, including Roger Albert and New York Times, at the time of its publication. (Eber gave the film a 3.5 out of 4 stars). Many captured the uniqueness of this story.
But some academic feminists are less enthusiastic – namely Bell hook, who wrote a critique of the film with academic Anuradha Dingwaney Needham.inside A widely cited review in 1992the writers felt the film played up stereotypes of Indian, black and southern white characters, calling the exploration of their relationship superficial and mocking.
They also denounced the film’s political leanings, particularly the idea that romantic love can somehow overcome oppression and a system of domination.
The film does end on an optimistic note, but also cautious: Mina and Demetrius, dressed in vaguely “ethnic” costumes, playfully kiss in a cotton field.
The scene takes place on the credits, after the actual movie ends. Seshagiri points out that the film itself has no room for this kind of love. Back then, there was no world where Mina and Demetrius could live happily ever after.
The question remains: Is such love possible within the confines of American society? Is it any different now? Mina and Demetrius might hope so.