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How Mississippi Masala Can Teach Us To Be Better To Each Other

The classic Mira Nair film celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, and its storyline has deep resonance today.

September 16, 2016
How <i>Mississippi Masala</i> Can Teach Us To Be Better To Each Other Courtesy of The Samuel Goldwyn Company

This past summer M.I.A. was booted from a headlining slot at Afropunk London, and the move sent a loud message. The British firebrand could no longer pretend her experiences of marginalization as a brown woman were analogous to black people. I watched this play out with interest because M.I.A. is an avatar for a specific type of South Asian person: one that goes to great lengths to assert wokeness, tweeting vintage Pam Grier photos and retweeting Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta reaction GIFs as a way of outwardly aligning with black culture, all while failing to examine deeper prejudices. The Afropunk incident exposed a fault line in the South Asian diaspora: How long will it take before the so-called ‘solidarity’ between two groups crumbles to expose rampant, underlying anti-blackness?

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Early in Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala, a loutish, middle-aged Indian motel owner named Jammubhai asserts, “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, we’re all the same. All us people of color must stick together.” This simplistic declaration of solidarity should give a viewer pause, but especially when considering who Jammubhai is speaking to: Demetrius is a black man — played by a young Denzel Washington — who runs his own carpet-cleaning business, and he’d just finished on the man’s motel room. Days before, Demetrius’s truck had been rear-ended by an Indian girl, 21-year-old Mina (Sarita Choudhury) who was driving Jammubhai’s car. Later in the scene the old man’s specious intent becomes obvious: When Demetrius is out of earshot, he reveals the ass-kissing was a mere ploy to evade a lawsuit.

The movie, celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, is significant because it offers a still-rare depiction of interracial relationships between two non-white characters and, specifically, between a South Asian woman and black man. But in the universe of Mississippi Masala, solidarity between South Asian and African-American communities is just lip-service on the part of the former — a form of cheap currency deployed to soothe short-term tensions. After the minor accident, Mina and Demetrius fall in love against ungainly odds: Mina’s Indian family can’t stomach the fact that Demetrius is black and the film charts the slow, painful erosion of the inclusivity myth Jammubhai tried to peddle.

Today, Mississippi Masala has unfairly become something of a hidden relic, its fanbase small but dedicated. Washington went on to become an A-List actor; Nair is better known for directing Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2001); and Choudhury continues to act but, regrettably, never became a star. This legacy is a shame because the film deserves a wider following for the precedent it sets regarding contemporary interracial political dialogue. Nair parsed the anti-blackness endemic to the South Asian diaspora with an honesty that public discourse on the topic has rarely, to this day, broached.

Mississippi Masala begins in Uganda circa 1972. Dictator-president Idi Amin has ordered the expulsion of all Indians from the country, and young Mina and her parents are casualties of this policy. They’re third-generation Indians living in Kampala, and identify as Ugandan above all else. After being forcibly uprooted and landing in Greenwood, Mississippi, Mina’s parents spend much of the film pining for Uganda: "I don't want to die in some stranger's country," her father says.

Eventually they acclimate to Greenwood, and are joined by a network of Indian family-friends who don’t interact much with the town’s black or white residents. It’s an insular community, and there’s an expectation the children will marry within this bubble. So the idea of Mina falling in love with anyone but an Indian man is unfathomable. “Can you imagine turning down Harry Patel for a black man?” a gossip says, referring to a rich Indian man who’s considered an aspirational match. From the Indian community’s remove, Mina’s romance with Demetrius is unnecessarily rebellious. And, over time, Demetrius’s family, once enamored of Mina, find this hostility burdensome.

Nair’s observation of the uneven ground between black and brown communities was her entry point into the film. “I noticed the levels of difference between black people and Indians and other people of color, and the sort of solidarity between them when I first came here, for university,” she said in an interview with BOMB, shortly after the film’s release. Nair had turned an eye to a collection of short stories written by The New Yorker’s Jane Kramer, and one, about the mass expulsion of Indians from Uganda, struck a chord with her. “It seemed to me that that was one point in history where this kind of tension — between black and brown races — had crystallized.”

[With Mississippi Masala] Nair gestured toward a conversation most in the South Asian community were, and still are, reticent to have – the admission that when we cross borders into white spaces, our trauma, no matter how painful, is not the same as black suffering.

Topically, Mississippi Masala feels particularly urgent against today’s political backdrop. It often seems as if members of my South Asian community prefer to ignore the existence of learned, intergenerational anti-blackness under the hasty guise of solidarity. This convenient denial has played out in the public arena over the past year. Consider M.I.A.’s tone-deaf comments about Black Lives Matter in April — the incident that expedited the Afropunk backlash — in which she said Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar weren’t stepping up to the plate for Muslim, Syrian, or Pakistani (read: ‘brown’) lives. Beyond the erasure of black Muslims that this sentiment implied, it also suggested that she believes Black Lives Matter is merely a political fad rather than a movement borne out of urgency. M.I.A. showed little willingness to concede her own allyship.

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A month later came Azealia Banks’s Twitter row with Zayn Malik; the rapper took a jab at the pop star’s Pakistani heritage, calling him a “curry-scented bitch.” This prompted South Asian Twitter users to reclaim #CurryScentedBitch as a site of self-love. Browse the hashtag and you’ll see young South Asians, largely from the diaspora, preening for selfies. Many were light-skinned, and ‘pretty’ according to Eurocentric beauty standards, with the effect of reinforcing the latent colorism in South Asian communities that buttresses anti-blackness. Compiled, such images suggested these bodies had, collectively, more worth and value than a dark-skinned black woman; there was no interrogation of how racial insults, as cruel as they might seem, can only cut as deep as the relative social power of the perpetrator. And obfuscated in this vaguely corny narrative of righteousness was the fact that South Asians were gleefully engaging in a pile-on of a black woman. Revisit Banks’s December 2014 interview with Hot 97, where she passionately, tearfully spoke about feeling alienated in an industry engineered against black people, and black women in particular. How do Banks’s undeniably pungent comments to Malik square with insecurities, rooted in white supremacy, that she’s vocalized so candidly? Answering this question didn’t seem to matter to the #CurryScentedBitch champions.

This inequity goes deeper than pop culture, into politics. After Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina last June, the state’s Sikh-American Republican governor Nikki Haley initially hesitated to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol. She’d previously said the flag was integral to the state’s identity, somehow unaware of its charged symbolism. And it was only after much waffling and external pressure that Haley ordered the flag’s removal, saying that it, “while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.” Little about her outlook on black lives changed, as proven in comments she’d make a few months later: “Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore.”

How <i>Mississippi Masala</i> Can Teach Us To Be Better To Each Other Courtesy of The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Drawing the parallels necessary for “solidarity” between South Asian and black lives has often required a degree of erasure at the expense of blackness. Nair's film burrows deep into the prejudice many South Asians carry with them when they leave the subcontinent; a psychology that directly plays into the community’s ‘model minority’ successes abroad. The roots of anti-blackness in South Asia are multi-pronged, buttressed by the region’s own colonial history, but when smoothed over by mealy-mouthed proclamations of kinship, who suffers? In Mississippi Masala, it’s primarily Demetrius. In Mina, Nair realized a character that actively wants to dislodge from the prejudices her community has normalized. Mina puts the theory of solidarity to practice, understanding it requires actual work, along with a dose of introspection and humility.

Nair’s filmography has had some misfires since, but later this month she’ll return to Uganda with Queen of Katwe, a biopic of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. If the film is received warmly, I’m hoping it may prompt people to take a closer look at Mississippi Masala. It doesn’t take a genius to glean why few speak of this film today. Nair gestured toward a conversation most in the South Asian community were, and still are, reticent to have – the admission that when we cross borders into white spaces, our trauma, no matter how painful, is not the same as black suffering.

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How Mississippi Masala Can Teach Us To Be Better To Each Other