Southern Movie 64: “Mississippi Masala” (1991)

The 1991 film Mississippi Masala tells the story of an interracial love affair between an African-American man and an Indian woman. Set in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1990, we see the crossroads where a family of Indian immigrants who have fled political violence in Uganda meets the black community in the small-town Deep South. The film, directed by Indian-born and Harvard-educated Mira Nair, stars Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury as two lovers who first meet through a fender bender. Their affair develops amid the conservative Indian culture of her parents, who live at a motel and run a liquor store, and his work as the owner of a carpet cleaning business. 

The first fifteen minutes of Mississippi Masala have nothing to do with Mississippi. An Indian family is living in Uganda during the rise of Idi Amin, and pro-African sentiments have led to a political situation in which non-Africans are not welcome and probably not safe. To exacerbate that danger, the father – who is a lawyer – has gone on BBC radio and criticize the oncoming regime. His African best friend advises him to leave Uganda as soon as possible. With tears and chagrin, the Indian family does pack up a few belongings leave, and unfortunately they must move so quickly that they leave much of their wealth and property behind. They are harassed by armed soldiers as they board a bus then an airplane, but ultimately do escape. During all this, our main character Mina is a little girl, old enough to be aware and frightened but too young to perceive fully what is going on.

Though the flight of an Indian lawyer and his family may have little to do with late-twentieth century Greenwood, Mississippi, this early portion of the film makes a clear statement: the family was removed for reasons driven by racism. But this time, the racism was perpetrated by black people. This ethnically Indian family had done nothing wrong. They were productive members of the community and good citizens. Their only crime was not being ethnically African, and within the larger framework of that pro-African sentiment, even the Africans who loved them and valued their presence would not be able to protect them from the racism that was sure to bear terrible fruit. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the South, and the history of Mississippi more specifically, should recognize some parallels here.

As the opening credits roll, we see a map that depicts the family’s trek across continents. Their first destination is England, and then as the music shifts to the blues, we follow the panning camera to where our story will occur: Greenwood, Mississippi.

The first image we see of Mina, our main character, she flips her thick main of hair out of her face, while she is shopping in a modern American supermarket.  A bit of text shows on the bottom right of the screen, which tells us where we are and that it is August 1990. Mina is beautiful and young – we could guess that she is in her early 20s – and for some reason, she is purchasing an unusually large amount of milk, with numerous jugs and cartons overfilling her cart. As she struggles with the heavy buggy, we hear an older Indian woman calling her name, and when they meet up, Mina asks if this will be enough. “You wanted to serve milk at the wedding,” Mina reminds her, and they go to pay. When the cashier cracks a bland joke about her purchase, Mina stares at him coldly. The older woman seems indifferent. Soon, they are outside the Piggle Wiggly as a bag boy loads paper bags into their trunk. The older woman is sitting alone in the back seat, and Mina gets in to drive.

Immediately, we see the cultural differences between the Indian immigrants and the people of the South. First, I cannot imagine anyone serving milk at a wedding in August in Mississippi. Second, it is pretty common in the South to make a harmless joke about an unusual occurrence for the purpose of inquiring discreetly for an explanation. About the milk, the boyish cashier is hoping for a word about why they are buying nearly three-dozen gallons of milk, but he gets nothing and thus says, “Hey, I was jus’ trying to be friendly.” He really was. But the newcomers don’t get that. They see a guy being rude about their way of doing things, when he was actually trying to open a door and have a conversation. 

On the way home, Mina is speeding down a dirty street lined by dilapidated buildings. The older woman in the back seat is telling her to slow down, then when she turns around to retort, Mina rear-ends a van that is stopped in the road. The front of her car is smashed, and next we see, the owner of the van gets out. He (Denzel Washington) is a black man in work clothes. As he attempts to discern calmly what has happened, a white guy from the truck in front of him gets out and begins yelling. The white guy, who is a redneck in a ball cap and a Harley Davidson t-shirt, believes he has been rear-ended by the blue van and immediately begins to berate the black man in front of a bunch of black people in what is obviously a black neighborhood. The van driver, though, tries to calm him down, first asking why he was stopped in the road and second informing the belligerent white guy that it was him who got hit from behind. The argument is going nowhere when a black police officer arrives and separates them. For comic relief, another white redneck in a straw cowboy hat and aviator sunglasses comes over from his wrecker and interjects, “Anybody here need a ride?” Amid all this – the cop has paid her no attention – Mina trades information with the van driver and seems to be leaving. Then the cop pays attention and calls after her, “I ain’t finished with you yet, young lady.” Mina turns and scowls.

In the next scene, we are at the Monte Cristo Motel. In a small hotel room, Mina’s father Jay is writing a letter and speaking its contents out loud. He is writing to the new government of Uganda to have his wealth and property restored. His wife Kinnu comes out of the bathroom and tells him to let it go, that years of writing these letters has yielded nothing. But his resolve is strong. He was born in Uganda and should not have been put out.

Their conversation is interrupted by a ruckus outside. A tow truck has brought Mina and the wrecked car back home. A whole cadre of Indian people emerge into the parking lot. The owner of the car is Anil, a young man who is about to get married.  Jay looks over the car and tells him not to worry, and Anil launches into a diatribe, saying that Jay can’t even feed his family but is telling him not to worry. This make Mina angry, and she calls Anil a wanker— not exactly what a guy wants to hear from a woman who wrecked his car and has no money. Then, Anil’s friend adds to the tension, saying that Anil must worry now because all Americans like to sue by claiming whiplash. To relieve that tension, an older man Canti Napkin standing nearby asks for the business card of the van driver, saying to let him handle it.

After that scene, everyone is getting ready for Anil’s wedding. Mina comes into her parents’ room dressing in a traditional Indian outfit, and her mother checks her feet then chastises her about her slippers. Mina laughs it off, saying that she is a “darkie” and that no one will think much of her. Her mother, however, is not amused and sends her daughter to change shoes. After she leaves, Kinnu fusses at Jay for not being harder on their daughter, but Jay is not worried about it. 

Our view of this community then shifts to black life in 1990s Greenwood. We see a group of young man and kids standing on a street corner, rapping and laughing as one young man emerges. He is stylishly dressed in bright colors and shorts with a heavy pan-African medallion-like necklace on. As they banter back and forth, the van driver from earlier, whose name is Demetrius, comes walking up, and he does not look happy. The stylish young man is alerted by his friends, and he looks downtrodden and goes over. Demetrius is coming once again to retrieve his lazy, ne’er-do-well younger brother from the streets. He chides the young man for not being at home when their father said to be, then asks him whether he went to the unemployment office. Yes, the young man says, but they have nothing for him and claim that veterans come first.

Though the story is clearly sympathetic to plight of the newcomers, the Indian immigrants, its telling does not go without giving some sympathy to the struggling black people as well. When the younger brother remarks that the employment people always have some excuse why they won’t help him, Demetrius replies angrily that, no, it’s him who always has an excuse! Here we see two responses to poverty and the lack of opportunity: one says that the system must do better in providing help, and the other says that people must help themselves.

In the next scene, we meet the young men’s father Willie Ben (Joe Seneca), who is a waiter in an old-school restaurant, the kind with tables in small nooks behind curtains. He is in a bow-tie and red jacket, rolling a cart with bussed dishes to an all-white clientele. As he is finishing, Demetrius has come to pick him up from work. He speaks to two white women at the counter, and the younger of the two explains after he walks away that her family talked to the bank for Demetrius to help him start his carpet cleaning business. In the kitchen, Willie Ben empties his tray of dirty glasses, then hangs up his red waiter’s coat. On the way out the door, he alludes to a woman who called – Alicia – and Demetrius is not pleased. Willie Ben told her she could come over to the house on Sunday. Judging from Demetrius’ reaction, she is an old girlfriend. 

At the motel, it is Anil’s wedding. A traditional Indian ceremony and party are going on. As people mingle and children play, two middle-aged women are talking about a desirable young man named Harry Patel. One wants this young man to marry her daughter, but they acknowledge that he likes Mina. However, one assures the hopeful mother-in-law, that both skin-color prejudice and economic situation are working against Mina: one cannot be dark-skinned and poor and get a man like Harry Patel for a husband. They laugh, and the scene moves to Anil’s father, who leads the group in a sung prayer, yet Harry moves through the crowd and asks Mina to leave with him. She smiles and agrees, telling her mother that she is going. Yet, this scene isn’t over . . . Before they cut away, we see two white men in a small office, and one is on the phone reporting the loud gathering to the police. The older of the two says, when he hangs up the phone, “Send ’em all back to the reservation, that’s what I say.” But the younger man corrects him, “It ain’t that kind of Indian.”

Across town, Harry Patel and Mina are getting out of the car and going into a black club called The Leopard Lounge. Inside, a crowd of black people are dancing and drinking. Harry orders them two Michelobs, and young black woman who Mina knows comes up to say hello. She invites them to join the line dancing that’s going on, but Harry – still in his tux – is no dancer. Mina goes, however, and who is among those dancing? Demetrius. Mina speaks to him first, reminding him who she is, but all they can say is hello before Demetrius sees something he clearly doesn’t like. Across the room is a well-dressed and put-together woman standing with a Geri-curl guy who is equally dolled up. Demetrius goes over and hugs her, just as the DJ welcomes Alicia over the loudspeaker. Demetrius looks unhappy about the whole thing, and when Geri-curl guy says something about being her producer, we know: his old girlfriend is a singer who left him for bigger dreams. To make Alicia jealous then, he goes over and asks Mina to slow dance, and pulls her very close while he glares at Alicia. Frustrated by all this, Harry suggests to Mina that they leave, but Mina tells him that she will stay . . . He can go, if he wants to. 

Now, the story is all set up. Mina and Demetrius go to the bar, where Tyrone is hanging out. He is the T in D & T Carpet Cleaning. Tyrone is what we used to call back in the ’90s a “skeezer”— a guy who hits on every woman in such obvious ways that it’s clear that he only wants one thing. He gives Mina the once-over, looking her up and down, and tries a few lines. Demetrius tells Tyrone to cool it, though, and he drives Mina home.

Back at the motel, Anil is trying to get his sleeping bride to wake up and have sex, while the Indian dudes are all drunk. Napkin is trying to tell Mina’s dad Jay about money, and another guy there scoffs at Jay, saying that in Uganda he was a champion defender of blacks but then blacks put him out. Jay quietly accepts the mockery with a remark about color-blindness. Meanwhile, outside, Mina is sitting by the pool alone, and her mother comes outside. They talk about Mina’s interest in Harry Patel – she has none – but Mina wants to know why her father doesn’t write to his best old friend back in Uganda. Their conversation wanders among these topics, until it ends with no resolution.

The next morning, while they are getting ready to go to work, Tyrone wants to know why Demetrius didn’t sleep with Mina. Demetrius says that he has more on his mind than sex, and Tyrone fusses at him for being stuck on Alicia. The two take a minute to make fun of her Geri-curl boyfriend, then they load up with Willie and are off.

Over at the motel, Demetrius and Tyrone are cleaning carpets when Napkin shows up with tea. He stops them and initiates an awkward conversation about how black people are good at sports, but knows so little that he rattles off names of athletes who aren’t black. The two black men correct him, and he gets to the point: no matter, in America there are white people . . . and everyone else is colored. The two agree but don’t see where he is going. Napkin then weasels his way – smiling the whole time – into getting Demetrius to admit that there was no personal injury or vehicle damage in the previous day’s car wreck, and thus . . . no need to sue. Demetrius seemed bewildered but gets it now, since he had no such idea about suing anyway. Napkin, though, is pleased with his outcome and leaves the conversation saying that all non-white people have to stick together. The two black men laugh and agree, but it is clear that they are mocking his notion that he has pulled a clever move.

Soon, Mina calls the room that Demetrius is cleaning and interrupts his work. She thanks him for taking her home, but his retort is not what she expects: I’m not going to sue, he says. He thinks that her friendly call is to doubly ensure his cooperation, but he quickly realizes that that way of doing things isn’t her. Demetrius invites her over to his house for dinner on Sunday. She accepts, then returns to a Chinese lunch with her father. They talk about his desire for Mina to continue her education, but she reminds him they have no money. As an exiled lawyer, he is frustrated that his daughter is cleaning bathrooms. She is OK with it, she assures him, and adds that she will go to college later, after he wins his legal case and gets his money and property returned to him.

Jay is then walking through a poor black neighborhood to his wife’s liquor store. A bluesman named Skillet plays a quick tune as Jay walks in, then buys one  can of Stroh’s beer and leaves. Alone, Jay and Kinnu talk, and Jay has a flashback to his childhood in Uganda and remembers his black friend fondly. 

Across town, Mina is on the way to Demetrius’ house. Slide guitar plays in the background, and Demetrius is asking Mina questions about herself. He finds out that she has lived in Africa, England, and now Mississippi, and he is surprised to hear that she has never been to India. She tells him that she is like masala, the spice, though Demetrius has never heard of it. They arrive at the house, and Demetrius’ family is waiting on them. Willie Ben introduces himself, and Tyrone still has his eye on Mina. We find out that Tyrone has tried to go to LA to be an actor, but has come back home when it didn’t work out. We also find out that Willie Ben has invited Alicia, the old girlfriend from the bar, and Demetrius is not pleased. It is Willie Ben’s birthday, and his sister and Demetrius’ younger brother are there. The meal goes well, but the family has a lot to say to Mina . . . and a lot to ask her about herself. They are curious about her, about Indian people, and other related matters. Mina answers in a friendly and open way, and everything is going fine until Alicia arrives. Then Mina and Demetrius are out. From there, they go to stroll by the riverside and talk, and kiss.

This is the one-hour point in the film – halfway – and the story brings us back to the motel. Mina is working the front desk with Anil’s father who owns the motel. He can tell that something is make her smile, and he is trying to figure out what it is, then a series of customers come through. An old Chinese man comes in smiling, turns in a room key, and remarks when asked how many times he did it, “Chinese don’t do no hanky-panky.” Then a fat white guy in a plaid sport coat comes in with a sassy young woman, but he is nervous and haggles over the rate while his side girl pinches and rubs him. Finally, Demetrius ambles in, whispering to Mina about Biloxi as she tries to cover up the fact that she knows him. Ultimately, Demetrius leaves still pleading in whispers and gestures for her to go with him, and the old Indian guy leaves it with Mina so he can go to bed. Sadly, of all the people who are getting some love, Anil is shown once more being rejected by his wife. (We get from this that, in traditional Indian culture, marriage is an arrangement that has nothing to do with love or sex.)

Later, on the phone, Mina and Demetrius concoct a plan for her to meet him in Biloxi, which is about 250 miles south on the coast. In the scenes that follow, the multiple plot lines begin to converge. Anil gets his car back from the repair shop after the wreck, and he and a few others agree to take it on the road for a test drive to see a friend’s new motel. Next, we see Mina behind the motel counter, and a letter arrives for her father. Jay rushes in and is reading it, as she asks if she can go to the beach with a female friend and come back tomorrow. Preoccupied, her father says yes, then continues reading. We know that Mina is actually going to meet Demetrius so they can be out of their own community’s sight. A voiceover then relays the contents of the letter: Jay’s letters of inquiries about his property and assets have been considered, and his case will be heard by a Ugandan court, but he must appear in person. 

Down in Biloxi, things get much better then much worse. Mina gets off the bus, and Demetrius is waiting there. They get to talk about their lives, about the South, and about race. But before they get to the motel to spend the night together, they are on the big Ferris wheel and are spotted. Anil, Napkin, and their friend are playing mini-golf below, and the skinny friend with the mullet recognizes them. The two lovers don’t see the three men, however, and thus move on to their night of passion— which is interrupted in the morning when the friend sees Demetrius’ van outside a beach motel. The three Indian men go to confront Mina and Demetrius, with Anil charging in first in an attempt to attack Demetrius. Anil gets his butt kicked, and the friend runs for help. When he arrives back with the police, Demetrius is taking care of Napkin next. Seeing only that Demetrius is the aggressor, the cops arrest him and Mina both. 

The scene skips to the police station, where first we see Mina escorted out and given over to father and Napkin, while Demetrius is released to Tyrone. Mina’s expression is defiant and hurt, and Jay receives her silently and with seeming compassion. Tyrone, on the other hand, reprimands his friend, telling him he should know better and to “leave them fucking foreigners alone.” While Demetrius sits silently in the passenger seat, Tyrone also recalls Napkin’s quasi-friendly speech about “united we stand, divided we fall,” which foretold some kind of solidarity between them. “But if you fall in bed with one of their daughters, you gon’ swing.”

Meanwhile, Mina is tearfully confronting her parents about her predicament. She is 24 years old and is stuck with them like she is still a child. Her mother pleads with her to embrace traditional Indian values about family and marriage, but Mina retorts that this is America. She loves Demetrius, and that’s all that matters. Her father scolds her for not being sorry about what she has done, but she is not sorry. To drive this point home, in the scene that follows, we see other Indian women only phone gossiping about Mina’s faux pas, as they gloat and enjoy her problems. One woman asks the other, “Can imagine turning down Harry Patel for a black?” Mina can, but they cannot.

A montage then shows the array of opinions to be held on this interracial love affair and its apparent end. Demetrius tries to call the motel to ask for Mina, but Anil – who has two black eyes and a busted nose – hangs up on him. The white racist we heard earlier confusing Indians with Native Americans has a good chuckle as he asks, “What’s a matter, y’all having nigger trouble?” The white woman who we saw earlier in the film, the owner of the restaurant where Willie Ben works, is telling someone that she will call the bank about Demetrius’s loan. Napkin is there too, explaining that he has already hired another carpet cleaner. Even the ex-girlfriend Alicia chimes in, claiming the Demetrius has betrayed his race. A man from the Chamber of Commerce even says in vague terms that Demetrius will be losing their support, too. The last diatribe comes from Willie Ben, who is concerned about his own job since his boss connected Demetrius to the bank. However, his sister chides him, saying that the days of slavery are over and that Willie Ben shouldn’t be OK with how these white people control their family.

Ultimately, Demetrius must go do something about it. His brash younger brother tries to be supportive, but he is so foolish and inept in his attempt that Demetrius brushes him off. Down at the bank, the man tells Demetrius and Tyrone that part of having a loan from them means exhibiting good character—which is total bullshit and they know it. But the end result is the same: The Man has decided to pull the plug. On the way out, Demetrius laments, “Character, Collateral. Capital. Color is the one they left out.” As one final blow, Tyrone then tells Demetrius that he’s not going to stick out with him. Tyrone is heading for LA to try is luck there again.

Out of options, Demetrius walks into the motel and asks to see Mina. Instead, Anil’s father at the front desk calls Jay. Confused, Demetrius follows Jay outside, and the elder man tells him that he has caused enough trouble. So, Demetrius is left to confront Jay about his racism, which he perceives as the source of the problem. Jay tries to implore the would-be suitor that he too once believed that he could challenge the world’s ways and be different, but now he just wants protect his only child from the realities of a cruel world. Demetrius is defiant though, saying that people like Jay come down to Mississippi, and though they are only a shade or two lighter than him, they immediately begin acting white, trying to treat black people like they are less-than. Jay is shocked by the accusation and is left speechless as Demetrius walks away. Jay is then left to remember his last night in Uganda, when he had to face race prejudice in such a severe situation. 

In the next scene, Jay is trying to explain to Mina why he is taking this stance against Demetrius. He tells her that his old friend in Uganda told him that “African is for Africans, black Africans,” and that it all came down to the color this skin. He learned the harsh lesson that people stick to their own kind. Mina, however, disagrees and says that his friend did not feel that way. She reminds him that, when they left he came to say goodbye to Jay and his family, but Jay wouldn’t even look at him. It was Jay who interpreted the situation the way he did.

To ratchet up the pressure, Demetrius decides to hire a lawyer after all. We see a white guy in a a suit and a big cowboy hat encouraging Anil to settle out of court. Jay is there to help him, calling the bluff and soothing Anil. Yet, Anil is having none of it. He tells Jay that he and his family must leave, that he has had enough of the trouble they cause. Jay announces first to his daughter then to his wife that they are heading back to Uganda.

In the film’s final twenty minutes, Jay and his family are packing to leave. But Mina sneaks away and makes yet another brash move, stealing Anil’s car. She goes to see Willie Ben at the restaurant. He is irritated by her coming to his workplace, and he tells her exactly what Jay told Demetrius, You’ve caused enough trouble for us, so go away. She wants to talk to Demetrius, to say goodbye, since they are leaving for Africa. Reluctantly, Willie Ben tells her that he is trying to drum up carpet cleaning work with motels in Indianola. She speeds over there and soon finds him, but he refuses to speak to her. Something of car chase ensues, and eventually Demetrius pulls over on a rural road. At first, there is tension between them, but they reconcile through conversation when she convinces him that she wants to stay in Mississippi with him rather than go back to Africa with her family. They both make difficult phone calls, explaining this fact to their respective families. Demetrius tells Willie Ben that he will have to fend off the bank, because he does not intend to give it back to the repo man. 

The final scenes have Jay and Kinnu back in Africa. Although he wanted to make amends, Jay finds out that his old friend is dead. The movie ends in a celebratory street scene, where people dance and where an African child climbs into Jay’s arms lovingly. We get the symbolism: love and humanity have triumphed over racism in Africa.

What makes Mississippi Masala particularly interesting are its two predominant messages that Southern black people are prejudiced – and possibly even racist – against Indian immigrants, and that the Indian immigrants who feel the effects of that prejudice have their own way of dealing out prejudice: skin color, social class, marriageability, assimilation, ethnic solidarity. In this complex mixture, Mina’s family has left a place where black people conducted an aggressive campaign to purge non-blacks and purify their homeland and their culture . . . and the family has arrived in a place where black people are on the receiving end of race prejudice from white people, while also naively regarding Africa as a place where race prejudice is not a problem. Further adding to the complexity is a blurry line that is evidenced by Napkin’s talk with Demetrius and Tyrone about the car wreck: the Indians want to team up with black people as “people of color” while also maintaining a separate cultural identity that sets them apart from black people. This approach by the Indian immigrants is a convenient and manipulative way to minimize their own victimization by appealing to Southern black people’s sense of victimization. Meanwhile, local black people, who are grounded and well-versed in trickery and double-talk, do not regard these newcomers in any way that would indicate solidarity.

So, Mina and Demetrius are both interlopers in each other’s culture. On each side of this different and unique color line, we have various symbolic caricatures. Mina’s father Jay is the worldly and enlightened man who recognizes his predicament, while his wife Kinnu is the voice of India’s traditions in a new world. Demetrius’ father Willie Ben is the wise elder who embraces life in a realistic but loving way, while Tyrone is an unreliable friend who sexualizes Mina. Demetrius represents the hard-working bootstrapper in the Southern black community, while his brother shows us the young man who is unwilling to work or accept responsibility, preferring instead to complain and blame. Anil and the other money-conscious Indians show us the inner workings of a group that has come to a place where they do not fit in, yet try to make their way. And by crossing from one world to another, our main characters find their romantic relationship to be difficult due to the lack of acceptance on both sides. 

As a document of the South, Mississippi Masala shows us more than the same old black-white paradigm. We do see a handful of white racists appearing as minor characters, but this story encourages us to think about a multicultural South. During the car ride to Demetrius house on their first date, Mina explains that she has lived in Africa, England, and now America, and so she is like masala, a spice used in Indian food. This analogy encourages us to consider Indian immigrants, who we may not think of as Southerners, but we can also extend that to the “Mississippi Chinese” or the Hispanic people believed to have introduced one of Mississippi’s well-known food traditions, tamales! It also asks us to consider that race prejudice in the South is not just simply a one-way street running from whites toward blacks, and that prejudice is multidimensional and involves issues of nativity, social class, family structure, and religion as well as race. Ultimately, Mina and Demetrius find that their relationship cannot continue in Greenwood, because of the cultural pressures on them both. They don’t know where they will go, as the movie ends— they just know they can’t stay where they are. This ending is particularly pessimistic considering that Jay wins his right to have his case heard in Uganda and returns there with some hope of redemption . . . while in the South, Mina and Demetrius have no idea where to turn, only knowing that the South will never allow them to have the relationship that they want.

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