Blu-ray Review: MISSISSIPPI MASALA, A Gorgeous Restoration of a Vibrant Romantic Drama

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Blu-ray Review: MISSISSIPPI MASALA, A Gorgeous Restoration of a Vibrant Romantic Drama

Romantic dramas are a bit too few and far between in recent years (at least good ones); have we become too cynical in the 21st century, has the burden of existence mean we too seldom scoff at those stories who delve into those deepest longings of our hearts? But a romantic drama is never just about the romance; there are always external factors, be they social, political, or cultural, and the good ones know which parts to combine.

And rarely has there been a romantic drama that so expertly combines the politics of the personal and the politics of the cultural, as Mira Nair's luminous 1991 film Mississippi Masala. A tale of cultures clashing over a Romeo and Juliet story in the American South, combined with a tale of forced expulsion and the longing for home, with amazing music, has been wonderfully restored by Criterion, with the usual and welcome extras to deepen and story of the film's creation.

Jay (Roshan Seth), an Indian man born and raised in Uganda, has been forcibly expelled under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. After some wandering, he ends up with his wife Kinnu (Shamila Tagore) and now 24-year old daughter Meena (Sarita Choudhury) in Mississippi, where they are welcomed by the strong, local Indian community. A fender-bender leads to Meena meeting Demetrius (Denzel Washington), who owns a carpet cleaning company. As Demetrius and Meena grow closer, each discovers that their family and friends might not be as open-minded as they claim, as even among people of colour, prejudice abounds.

Like any second-generation child of immigrants, Meena is resisting the life that her parents have carved out for her: she's never been to India, she's lived in the UK and the USA, and is a westerner at heart. She wants the freedom that comes with it, and her irreverance and zest are infectious. Demetrius has a solid business and a good family, but he sees in Meena what's been missing, and how she understands that feeling of longing and displacement.

'Masala' is not lightly used, of course, and the film finds a particular way to showcase the various cultures than mix and blend in this American South, from the African American community and the Indian diaspora, each trying to find a foothold and a place of their own. Meena dances to the local music, Demetrius wants to believe in the new Mississippi. The light casts a particular glow, different from that of Uganda shown in flashbacks, with the heat and glare off the bayou and Gulf. The music also covers these corners of the globe: African-American hip hop and dance, traditional Ugandan, contemporary Indian, all against that sky which too often is not viewed by those who aren't considered 'American', even though they live, work, and die on its soil. Mix in the heat of love, of sexual desire, of frustration, of anger, and it's a spicy mix, for certain.

It might feel like this film should really be two films, but like the masala of music and visuals, the stories of Jay's fight for his Ugandan past and Meena's fight for her American future. Each of these tales must not only fight against the prejudice each community has against the other, but their fight against the White majority that doesn't accept either of them. This is a story of how people find where they belong - whether it is in a place or with a people, with a group or just another individual, and how identity can take multiple forms.

Mississippi Masala is a story of love - love of home, of family, love of another person, and how love can transform, can anger, can sadden, and can restore. It's also heady with desire and simmering more than a little with sparks of fire, great music, and stunning visuals.

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Special Features

A film like Mississippi Masala breathes its images, with two different regions on display. The 4K restoration, supervised by Nair and her Director of Photography Ed Lachman, shows its colours and life in wonderful harmony and contrast. In Lachman's interview, he discusses how he selected different lenses and film stocks to differentiate between Uganda and Mississippi - while both are hot and wet places, they still have different rural and urbans landscapes, vegetation, and quality of light. Lachman also discusses the challenges of lighting indoors spaces, finding the right way to highlight skin tones - considering the importance in the narrative.

It's wonderful to hear Choudhury talk of her experience, as this was (quite literally) her first job out of film school; to see the command she had over the role, and hear her describe how she approached it, is a good lesson to aspiring actors. Likewise, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala's discussion on how she developed the story, how she and Nair worked to combine these two seemingly disparate tales into one, so that they wove together and informed each other, is an insight into the work that can often go into complex screenplays. She also highlights Washington's essential input from the Black American perspective.

For those who enjoy a more pensive perspective, Bilal Qureshi's essay lets us in on some interesting nuances of culture, especially relishing in looking at the visuals and music, their influences from the different regions, and how it was all spun together. But the hightlight of this release, besides the restoration, must be notes from Nair's production diary. Including photos from people interviewed for the film, it shows Nair's journey from the first seeds of the story, to location scouting, to meeting the people who would inspire the characters and setting, to, indeed, her first through on Choudhury. It's the kind of material we hope is preserved from all great films.

Mississippi Masala

  • Mira Nair
  • Sooni Taraporevala
  • Denzel Washington
  • Sarita Choudhury
  • Roshan Seth
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CriterionMira NairSooni TaraporevalaDenzel WashingtonSarita ChoudhuryRoshan SethDramaRomance

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