Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” begins with a piece of family history that is also a history lesson – the expulsion of Uganda’s sizable South Asian population, ordered from the country in 1972 by military strongman Idi Amin.
“Mississippi Masala,” a 1991 Venice Film Festival award winner, still fresh and newly relevant, has been restored for a run at Manhattan’s IFC Center, starting Friday.
After a lively prologue, the film jumps forward 18 years to recapture the displaced central family resettled in Greenwood. Tagore, the star of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Devi’, among others, runs the adjacent liquor store.
Jay still dreams of Uganda; Kinnu is more resigned in exile. Their daughter, Meena (Sarita Choudhury), who cleans the rooms at the motel, goes above and beyond – so ruggedly American she could defend the Statue of Liberty, albeit Liberty in chains. “I’m 24 years old and I’m still here — I’m stuck here,” she tells her misunderstood parents.
Fortunately, Meena is also a reckless driver. Early on, she rides in the back of a carpet cleaning company’s van run by a straightforward but cool Demetrius (Denzel Washington). It’s “the first in a series of clashes,” noted DailyExpertNews critic Vincent Canby in his glowing review, between her world and his.
As the title suggests, “Mississippi Masala” is a film of continuous juxtaposition. The first is a transition from the green paradise of Uganda to the consumer cornucopia of Piggly Wiggly in America. Another follows a flashback to the hilltop villa in Uganda with the fake plantations of wealthy Greenwood. Nair grew out of making documentaries, and thanks to Ed Lachman’s vibrant cinematography, “Mississippi Masala”, the landscapes are characters too.
The cast also has a documentary aspect. Choudhury, a neophyte who grew up in Jamaica where her father was a biologist, plays a version of herself (at one point she wears a Bob Marley T-shirt). She was so close to the role that, despite the film’s success, it took some time to start an acting career. (Most recently, she was featured in the reboot of “Sex and the City,” “And Just Like That.”) Washington, a decade older, already awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, can be seen as a guide who guides her leads through the movie.
Hoping to avoid a lawsuit, the wealthier Indians try to make common cause with the blacks of Greenwood. Meena’s connection is deeper. “You’re just like us,” Demetrius’ younger brother tells her. ‘You’ve never been to India. We have never been to Africa.” Meena and Demetrius are both cleaners and accordingly low caste. Both must escape family obligations and transcend tribal prejudice. A stolen weekend in Biloxi and a fight in a motel room cause the phone lines to buzz, the Chamber of Commerce and a court appearance.
The pop iconography of chain restaurants, motels and gas stations (as well as Hindu shrines) characterizes independent films of the 1980s. But the end of Nair’s storybook is more of the 1990s, recalling the golden age after the Cold War, when the seemed as if the American notions of “freedom” and self-invention prevailed.
Opens Friday at IFC Center, Manhattan, ifccenter.com