Precious Bodily Fluids

Mississippi Masala

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.]

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This entry was published on October 4, 2008 at 11:38 am. It’s filed under 1990s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “Mississippi Masala

  1. A thoughtful and accessible review of a film I saw years ago: the father and the line “home is where the heart is” remain in my memory.

    My parents were immigrants, and I feel the film makes a valiant, perhapsas y0u say, clichéd, attempt to relate the migrant experience, and the dynamic of the second-generation children traversing the divide between the newcomers and a sometimes hostile new life in alien territory.

    I agree the daughter is portrayed rather naively, but would go on to say that migrants and their children never move on unfettered. The parent’s soul is rooted in a place and time that no longer exists, and the children are burdened with a fractured identity based in the heritage they have lost and a future that will be unfettered only for, their, children.

    The line “home is where the heart is” may be clichéd but the meaning behind it is not.

    Elvis in 1961 recorded simple song for the soundtrack to Kid Galahad titled, you guessed it, “Home is Where the Heart Is”, by Edwards and David.

    After seeing Mississippi Masala, each time I here this song, I recall the movie, for reasons the lyric will make clear:

    Home is where the heart is
    And my heart is anywhere you are
    Anywhere you are is home
    I don’t need a mansion on a hill
    That overlooks the sea
    Anywhere you’re with me is home

    Maybe I’m a rolling stone
    Who won’t amount to much
    But everything that I hold dear
    Is close enough to touch

    For home is where the heart is
    And my heart is anywhere you are
    Anywhere you are is home

    Maybe I’m a rolling stone
    Who won’t amount to much
    But everything that I hold dear
    Is close enough to touch

    For home is where the heart is
    And my heart is anywhere you are
    Anywhere you are is home

    Home, home, home, home, home

    A clip of Elvis singing the song is here: http://es.youtube.com/watch?v=DX-JMlUQCLs

  2. The sentiment is definitely true, and not only true, but good. That’s why I think the film works so well. I don’t mean to draw attention to its flaws, but rather to draw attention to how good it remains despite them. I am not from an immigrant family, but it seemed to me that the film fairly portrayed the complexities of immigration and ethnic identity. I’m glad to have it confirmed from someone who has experienced it first- or second-hand.

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