Rediscovering the magic of 'Mississippi Masala' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The 1991 film Mississippi Masala stars Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington as two very beautiful people who meet and unexpectedly find they're just right for each other. Directed by Mira Nair, it's also about family and displacement, knowing your history, and making your own way in the world. And after being hard to track down for many years, the film is newly available again on the Criterion Channel.

Rediscovering the magic of 'Mississippi Masala'

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"Mississippi Masala" is a romance starring Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington as two very beautiful people who meet and unexpectedly find they're just right for each other. It's also about family and displacement, knowing your history and making your own way in the world. And after being hard to track down for many years, the 1991 film is newly available again. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "Mississippi Masala" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HOLMES: Joining me today is frequent NPR contributor and culture writer Bilal Qureshi. Welcome, Bilal.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Thank you, Linda.

HOLMES: And also with us is Vulture TV critic Roxana Hadadi. Hello, Roxana.


HOLMES: So "Mississippi Masala" first came out in 1991. It was written by Sooni Taraporevala and directed by Mira Nair. The two had collaborated in 1988 on the Oscar-nominated film "Salaam Bombay!" In "Mississippi Masala," we meet Meena, a woman played by Sarita Choudhury, whose Indian family lived in Uganda until the Indian population of the country was mostly expelled during the dictatorship of Idi Amin. They live in a few places, but they end up in Mississippi, where Meena's parents are eager for her to get married and are in the process of trying to find an appropriate Indian husband for her. But one day she has a car accident and - it must be said - a meet-cute with young Demetrius, who owns a carpet cleaning business and is played by Denzel Washington. Their story is very romantic and sexy, but it also runs into hostility from some of the people in their lives, her parents in particular. It also spends some time exploring the pain that Meena's father in particular feels over being expelled from the country where he lived his whole life and how that pain has changed him.

For many years, "Mississippi Masala" was very tough to find through legitimate means, but happily, there is a new Criterion Collection release of a 4K restoration of the movie, and you can find it on the Criterion Channel. We should say Bilal wrote the essay about the film that accompanies the Criterion release, so you know we are going directly to the right person. Bilal, I want to talk to you a little bit about - when you look back at this movie, what stands out about it for you?

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, as you said, it was made 30-plus years ago, and it was very hard to see. And I think what I was struck by watching it now is how still sexy it remains, how still kind of unique it feels as a kind of adult romantic drama. But I also think with a lot of immigrant stories in American cinema, they tend to be about what happens once you arrive in the new country and what you make of your life here. And I felt like what really struck me was how much it also managed to bring to the table the things that people leave behind and the lives that they had. And I think the fact the film is shot between Africa and between the South, you're made to know what people left behind, like I said. And so I found that that sort of balance is really unique, and there really isn't anything else I can think of like it sense. And Mira Nair is also one of my favorite directors who has made so many great films even since - "Monsoon Wedding," "The Namesake." And I think this feels like still one of her, like, great masterpieces, even though, as I said, it was such a long time ago now.

HOLMES: Yeah. One of the things that you talked about in the essay is that Meena's father, whose name is Jay - and he's played by Roshan Seth - is in great pain because he was born in Uganda. That's the only place he ever lived, and he found himself being displaced. And so, you know, he has great pain over that. He's not really just displaced in the sense that he's now in Mississippi. He's displaced in the sense that he was forced to leave the only place he had ever lived. Roxana, you are also a fan of this movie. Tell me what is special about it to you.

HADADI: I am sort of fascinated as the child of immigrants about stories that are about immigration, yes, but also about, like, what is lost and what is gained in sort of the process of moving yourself. So something that I think that this movie does very well - and Mira Nair's other film, "The Namesake," also does this - is sort of examine your changing in the time between where you were one place and where you are now. And that place, though, that you came from remains fixed in your mind, right? Like, that never changes. So something that I think this movie does so well is you get the sense that, for this family, their vision of Uganda and this place that they came from, this place they can never go back to - there's something really, like, crystalline and perfect about that. I just - I love how the movie sort of interrogates that sense of, like, who are you in relation to that place and who are you now in this new place. And also, to Bilal's point, the movie is still really sexy. It is very sensual, and it is shot in this way that really just captures what these two characters feel for each other and this sort of magnetic pull.


HADADI: It's interesting, I think, that we talked about them potentially being perfect for each other because I actually don't think they are at first. But there's something that they recognize and respect about one another that keeps them sort of going back to each other. It's a little bit of a challenge, I think, that relationship.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I think, too, as you mentioned, there is so much here that has such depth and, in some ways, particularly in the story of Jay, such sadness and longing. And yet, look. This is not the reason to see a movie, but, like, if you want to see a movie that catches two young people at an extraordinary moment of beauty for both of them, it is that. It's very funny in some ways. Some of their encounters are very funny. They have a lot of fun together. And there's a phone call that they have that is both. Well, I want to ask you, Roxana - you talked a little bit with the director about that phone call scene. Tell me a little bit about that conversation that you had with her.

HADADI: Well, I think that the phone call scene is immediately what most of us think of - right? - because - to that point of them both being really beautiful, Sarita and Denzel.

HOLMES: Right.

HADADI: There is also the sense that you're in this really intimate moment with them. They're both bearing each other physically and sort of emotionally. It doesn't feel overwritten. They're still awkward. And they're still sort of (laughter) feeling each other out. But they're both sort of taking a leap of faith in terms of, like, I'm attracted to you. And let's see where this goes. And when I spoke with Mira Nair, she said that that sort of feeling of taking a risk and sort of following where it goes was something that they really wanted to capture. And the isolated shots of seemingly innocuous body parts were also really part of that, just the cinematography of, like...


HADADI: ...The leg, right? Like, a toe sort of running down your leg and, like, a random arm coming out from behind the sheets.


HADADI: So sort of - there's this visual language as well that is just very provocative in that scene.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Demetrius Williams) Thought I'd give you a call - kind of wishing you were here with me.

SARITA CHOUDHURY: (As Meena) I was thinking the same - wanting to be with you.

WASHINGTON: (As Demetrius Williams) What you got on?

HOLMES: And you and she spoke also about a kind of a feeling of both intimacy and formality that was familiar to both of you.

HADADI: Yes. I think that this is something - maybe Bilal can speak to this, too. But I think, like, in South Asian cultures and Middle Eastern cultures, there is this sense that you are sort of holding yourself back from revealing too much of yourself. So there's, like, an etiquette, especially in these sort of, like, male-female interactions. So I think this movie is also walking that line of - she knows how she is supposed to behave. And she's sort of walking up to that line and putting a toe across it and wondering, what's going to happen next? But, Bilal - I don't know - did you feel the same way?

QURESHI: No. I mean, as you were describing, I was thinking about all the, like, dangling phone lines, the white sheets and all that sort of - you know, the night filming going on and the way you awkwardly call somebody when you're sort of like, I have a major crush on you. And it's like, you're sort of stuttering your way through that chat. Yeah, I mean, her films are - she loves love scenes. And she's always talked about how she likes to make sure that people of color are also shown being intimate. And that's something she's been doing for a long time.

To me, it's like, the way that this movie has so much movie in it is also something I keep thinking about. Like, it has the father's story in Uganda. It has the daughter and Denzel's love story in the south. And I think - you know, it's, like, a normal two-hour film. But it feels like it just has a lot of experiences in it. And you talked a lot, Linda, about the sort of nostalgia and the pain in the father's story.


QURESHI: But it's also really funny. And it also has, like, a lot of really hilarious secondary characters, like the families that live with this family in the motel that Sarita Choudhury's family runs in the South. This is sort of based on the story of Indian families who ran motels in the South. There's a lot of, like, secondary characters that really make this also, like, funny, including Denzel's family, which is this great story of a southern Black family, too, living in a very - you know, in a town where there is a lot of segregation still and a lot of struggle still. And so I think the way that all these people are in it, all this story is in it - and, yes, all this, like, slowed down, kind of, like, R&B vibe is in it, too. It just feels like it goes into a lot of registers, which feels remarkable to me in a two-hour film.

HOLMES: Yeah. And one of the things I was so glad to see about the restoration and the fact that such attention has been paid to presenting this film in the best possible way is that it is so, so pretty to look at. I mean, there are certainly some very beautiful locations in the film, but it's also just the use of light. There's this kind of - you know, when you see stills from this film or clips from this film, you may see them kind of walking together in this kind of half-sun setting kind of light. It is such a pretty, pretty movie, both in its treatment of human beings and in its treatment of the natural world.

But it also has this extraordinarily lived-in and specific setting in terms of places that you wouldn't necessarily think of as incredibly beautiful, like motels and stores and things like that. And yet, everything looks really beautiful. There's a - there's kind of a climactic sequence in this movie that takes place in and around a phone booth. And it is just as beautiful as these extraordinary sunset kind of shots just because of the way - the care with which it was shot.

HADADI: Yeah. I think Edward Lachman, as a cinematographer, clearly loves the golden hour. I mean, who doesn't?

HOLMES: (Laughter) Yeah.

HADADI: But I think that there is - yes, there is this visual lushness, I think. But there's also this argument being made that, like, you can find beauty sort of anywhere you look. And I think the color palette of this movie is very interesting. When we go back to Uganda, there is this richness to, like, the emeralds, the fuchsias. Everything is this pop of color. And I think, if you watch the film as well, it's not that the depiction of Mississippi is somehow lesser than. There are also sort of this reflective quality that this place has just as much depth and texture as the place that they left. It's just that the family, perhaps, is not yet looking for that kind of representation. So I think Lachman, who also shot "The Virgin Suicides" and sort of brings that same type of, like gauzy, ethereal quality - it's just a movie that's very easy to get lost in, taking these marshy walks...


HADADI: ...Dancing in this wedding. There is a lot of pulling the viewer in that happens.

HOLMES: Yeah. Bilal, I also wanted to ask you - you know, you sort of opened the essay talking a little bit about your experience with your own family and how the film resonated for you. Can you talk about that a little bit?

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, when I first heard Mira Nair talk about this film, she was giving a lecture about the hierarchy of color in America and kind of where you fit in when you're a brown person between Black and white and how, for her, she navigated those questions as a student when she came to Harvard from India. And I think what really struck me in the film is, like, she's really making also a movie about American racism and American race and actually in a way complicating it by showing what happens when we have people who don't fit in either of those categories the way we tend to think of segregation. And I think to me that really - and I grew up in Richmond, Va., which was the former capital of the Confederacy. And I've always felt, like, slightly that feeling of, like, where did our family who didn't have this baggage or history or even know frankly much about how to navigate it fit in?

And in her film, you know, there's this really interesting way of showing that you have to, like, become fluent in the new place that you've come, but you also have the ability to sort of break out of those lines. And, I mean, this film comes out of a lot of, like, reporting and experience. And I think it's easy to find a lot of problematics with a lot of things around societal explorations or race or America and even, like, class in this movie, which I think is a very important theme too. And yet I think you can sense that the research and the thinking that went on was rigorous, and that still holds up, too, 30 years later. I think some of its ideas about how America is set up and how the hierarchy of color is arranged - something that I like 'cause it's both a really, like, wonderful film to watch and easy to get lost in, but also a film to think about afterward.

HOLMES: Yeah, definitely. And I remember reading - it might have been, Roxana, in your discussion with her - about the fact that Demetrius was very much a real guy that she met, who was a carpet cleaner, who had a similar slogan. And so this whole idea of this kind of network of motels in the South - you know, that all comes out of her - as Bilal was saying - her real research and her real kind of delving into this community that these characters are living in.

HADADI: Yeah, like, she did a lot of research. I believe it was months, if not potentially years of research, both in the South and in Uganda - all of this research that she did to try to understand these networks, how do immigrant communities sort of find each other and stick together in a new place? So I think what this movie also does so well is it does track the passage of time. And a lot of movies don't do that well, right? Like, you don't get a sense of what something was and then how it became.

So I think having a lot of that research helps inform these family dynamics and these relationships so that the last act of the film, when we do get to the decision that these two main characters make about their relationship - I think it feels informed by people who have actually lived this, which Mira Nair did. She did find relationships and couples who are of different ethnic backgrounds and asked them, how do you actually do this? Like, how do you live in the South, being people of different backgrounds? And so I think that there is also a realism to that ending that doesn't exactly fit a Hollywood romance. It does some things that I didn't anticipate, and I feel like that's also born out of the work she did beforehand.

QURESHI: I wanted to just say, too, that I think we've talked a lot about kind of the past that's kind of earthed in the story of a family and how much it sort of shows you about the background. I mean, I also was thinking, Linda, as you were talking about how it was kind of lost in a way as a film and how important that also becomes because, you know, it's been 30 years, and then in this restoration it's now available to stream on Criterion. And I do feel like that also seems really important because I think there's been this discussion recently about how in streaming - like, the question of where things are available and how long they'll be available and when you can actually see things is kind of becoming important again.

And so I - you know, it's wild, but it is true that it was hard to see a very good copy of this film for a long time. And then you see it in this way, and it still, again, feels not only fresh, but it feels like it gives me a new way to think about movies that we're watching today and what they're like and what they're about and whether we see interracial relationships portrayed even. So I do feel like there's something really wonderful about the fact that things like this can be made available, and they're available in, like, a form that's hopefully a little more permanent and how kind of, like, fleeting things can be if they're not taken care of or - I don't know - the rights are not organized properly 'cause it seems like that's going to be an issue moving forward, too.

HOLMES: Yeah, I would think so. And, you know, I found that watching this film, you know, as somebody who - as I said, I had had this recommended to me over and over and over again because people know me. They know that I love a love story. They know that I love a sexy romance. And I found that watching this gave me a brand of pleasure that I rarely get anymore, which is being able to find something that is hard to find. And so in a weird way, it's so enormously sad to have things that are not available, but weirdly, it also gave me this funny little thrill that I used to get from, you know, oh, this isn't available on, you know, VHS or whatever. It used to be that if you - and it's - you know, this is such a old person yells at cloud, but, like, you know, it used to be that if you saw something and then it was gone, you didn't necessarily expect to have it to hand at any time. And it was really interesting to have what was for me pretty much a pure discovery of something really kind of beautiful and to me sort of famously great that I hadn't really been able to see in a good setting. You know, that was really cool, and it rarely happens anymore.

QURESHI: I had only seen it before in, like, a VHS from a university library, like, with, like, a Dewey Decimal kind of, like, style, flat filing, and not a very good copy of it. So I think that it's, like, sort of something wasting away in those kinds of places unless you can find it.

HADADI: It was illegally on YouTube for a while.


HADADI: There are also some, like, random streams that were pretty low quality that were floating around the internet for a while.

HOLMES: Right. And that's the kind of thing - and you never know how long they'll stay up and...

HADADI: Exactly. Yeah.

HOLMES: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Mississippi Masala" when you find it. Find us at and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you to Bilal and Roxana for being here.

HADADI: Thank you.

QURESHI: Thank you to both of you.

HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif and Jessica Reedy. Special thanks to Patrick Murray for engineering help on this episode. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes, and we will see you all tomorrow.


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