Revisiting Denzel Washington’s lovely Mississippi Masala


When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

In the age of streaming, it’s easy to assume that everything is just a click or two away. But even our biggest movie stars aren’t guaranteed to have their entire filmographies online. Two years after he won an Oscar for Glory, Denzel Washington starred in Mississippi Masala, a Romeo And Juliet-style romantic dramedy about a black carpet cleaner and an Indian motel employee who find love in Greenwood, Mississippi. Though it earned solid reviews, the 1992 film made a slim impression at the box office. And it’s yet to make its way to a digital streaming platform, not even as an iTunes or Amazon rental (although you can rent it through Netflix’s surprisingly still operational DVD mail program). It’s a shame because Mississippi Masala is exactly the kind of movie that deserves to be rediscovered today: a wholly original story written and directed by women that thoughtfully explores the complexities of interracial love between people of color.

Washington wasn’t the only Oscar honoree involved in Mississippi Masala. Director Mira Nair’s 1988 debut narrative feature, Salaam Bombay! had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Indian-born, Harvard-educated director came from a background in cinéma vérité and documentary filmmaking, which she utilized in Salaam Bombay! by casting real-life children from the slums of Mumbai to fictionalize their lives. For Mississippi Masala, Nair took loose inspiration from her own cultural experiences: “When I arrived [at Harvard] I was accessible to both white and black communities—a third-world sister to the black community and Kosher to the others—yet there were always these invisible lines. I felt that there was an interesting hierarchy where brown was between black and white.”

Nair re-teamed with Salaam Bombay! screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala for Mississippi Masala, and they combined two other Indian-immigrant experiences for the film’s premise, which involves both the unexpected fact that lots of motels in the American South are run by Indian-American families and the history of Indian immigration and exile in Uganda. As Mississippi Masala details, during the late 19th century, British colonizers used indentured servants from India to construct the Ugandan Railway system. Some of those laborers chose to stay in the country after their contracts were done, and eventually rose to positions of economic prosperity. In 1971, however, Idi Amin staged a military coup and ordered the exile of all Asians living in Uganda.

Mississippi Masala opens by capturing the terrifying brutality of that expulsion. Successful lawyer Jay (Roshan Seth), his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), and their young daughter Mina (Sahira Nair) must leave Uganda with only what they can carry. For Jay, who…

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