Sarita Choudhury on Mississippi Masala, Flirting With Denzel


denzel washington sarita choudhury

“I remember in some scenes I couldn’t look at Denzel, because when I did, I felt like I would blush.”
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and The Samuel Goldwyn Company

It’s an awkward meet-cute at best: A girl, trying to ignore her chattering mother riding in the passenger seat of her car, accidentally rams into the back of a young, attractive carpet cleaner’s van. That night, they meet again at a local club. She doesn’t even need to bring him home before her parents voice their disapproval. In 1991, Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala, a sort of anti–Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The interracial romance between Mina (Sarita Choudhury) and Demetrius (Denzel Washington) is just one part of an Indian family’s complicated relationship with America. Mina’s father, Jay (Roshan Seth), tries to impress upon his daughter their Ugandan roots and the injustice of Indians being exiled by Idi Amin; their home there, though, feels like a distant memory to the 20-something that drives fast and wears Bob Marley T-shirts. Falling in love with Demetrius lets Mina see herself, her family, and the pervasive racism of the Deep South with a new clarity. The movie doesn’t make any big declarations about diversity or prejudice but observes how casually they can infect and how blithely they can obscure otherwise-generous minds. (The movie isn’t streaming anywhere at the moment, but there are ways to not watch it not legally.)

Two things about Mississippi Masala remain as true now as 30 years ago, when this movie came out: A Denzel Washington romance is too rare an occurrence. And Choudhury’s performance — her first acting job ever! — was on the level of Frances McDormand’s Blood Simple debut or LaKeith Stanfield’s acting in Short Term 12. It’s still astonishing, in retrospect, just how good Choudhury is — her confidence, her tenderness, the way her wild intensity matches Washington’s natural magnetism. Today, Choudhury chalks it up to being young enough, and inexperienced enough, to know what she didn’t know. “After I saw Mississippi Masala, I realized Mira really was great at harnessing something in me and letting it be. I’m so grateful for her. And then, after that, I realized I’m not always going to have someone like Mira, so I went back and studied and got confidence. I couldn’t wing it anymore.” Choudhury, currently quarantined in New York City, answered Vulture’s every question about…

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