Mississippi Masala was a most pleasant surprise. Revealing some biases, the film has against it that it was released in the early 90’s, a period of relative cinematic dryness. Or, if not dryness, films of this period tended to contain certain stylistic conventions, more appropriately identified as quirky clichés. Presumably every period has had some of these, but whereas many conventions become classic and beloved, others are in themselves sources of comedy and detract from what might otherwise be good films. What makes Mississippi Masala impressive is that, despite these distractions, a thoughtful premise is sensitively executed and avoids sentimental tendencies.
It presents a complex inter-generational dynamic of immigration and emigration. An “Indian” couple, after living their entire lives in Uganda, is forced to leave by the infamous Idi Amin. They move with their young daughter to, that’s right, Mississippi. Living in a community of other Indian-Americans, they hold fast to their roots while their daughter Mina clearly takes on a more American identity. This difference isn’t overdone; Mina lives in harmony with her parents, dresses in Indian garb, works the family business at the hotel where they live, and is never embarrassed to express her cultural heritage. But the director, Mira Nair, drops a few hints of Mina’s Americanization (if that’s an appropriate term). Perhaps the most subtle and yet striking effect is Mina’s American accent. All of the Indian-American people surrounding her, even those who seem to be second-generation peers of Mina, speak with an Indian accent. Mina’s Indian accent is not only non-existent, but it’s strikingly region-neutral American; there’s no Deep South accent one would expect from living in Mississippi. (Perhaps this would have drawn too much attention to the accent issue.) Mina’s romance with Demetrius (Denzel Washington, in an early and tolerable role) is the catalyst for Mina’s final liberation from a heritage that she does not feel is her own.
Yet, it’s a rather rare and refreshing portrayal of a second-generation foreign immigrant coming to American who is able to remain deeply faithful to her parents while expressing a need to rupture her constructed ethnic identity. She is more integrated into the American culture where she lives than the other immigrants in her community – there’s the accent, her love for Demetrius, her enjoyment of going out dancing, and her dreaming about future possibilities. It’s possible that the direction could have improved the film’s ending. Mina’s father returns to Uganda when he finally is approved for a court date to be compensated for the family’s expulsion from Uganda. He arrives there, realizes that his life is no longer in Uganda but in America with his wife. With accompanying music and camera angle, he tells her on the phone, “Home [pause] is where the heart is.” These kinds of clichés are what restrain Mississippi Masala from realizing its full potential, even when the film itself is worth more than the sum of its parts. The character of Mina, and even the character of her father, undergoes a dynamic process of cultural re-identification. Their disconnection from the physical places of their ethnic heritage ruptures the constructs of who-they-are and allows them to move forward unfettered. [Images courtesy of here.]