On ‘Mississippi Masala’ and the Politics of Desire
They were a two-sided awakening for me; a bi-panic-inducing pairing.
In an early scene in Mississippi Masala, the heroine Meena sweeps the great mane of her hair out of her face while she pushes a cart full of milk gallons through a beige Southern grocery store. She is brown. Her skin shines. People stare at her and her strange purchases. It loops forever in my mind when I think of Mira Nair’s 1992 film, like it does in a million GIFs strewn across the Tumblrs of South Asian girls. She keeps appearing in her explosive sun-bright colors—burning a hole in the center of the grainy film.
The story is about two all-consuming loves: the romance between Meena and Demetrius and the dedication Meena’s father, Jay (Roshan Seth), has for their home in Uganda. The film is as lush as it is sparing. It moves quickly, from the origins of Meena’s family in Uganda to their exiling under Idi Amin in the 1970s to the Monte Cristo motel that is the center of Meena and Jay’s collectivist Gujarati community in the flatlands of Greenwood, Mississippi.
It is the only movie I can think of that fully occupies the liminal spaces of small-town life in the deep South and third-world-culture experience. Jay sleepwalks through life in Mississippi, single-mindedly bent on winning his land back from the new Ugandan regime. Meena and Demetrius come together even as people in both their communities try to pull them apart.
The film is about sex, sensuality, girlhood, and the way the racial politics of men are staked out on women’s bodies.
Sarita Choudhury’s beauty as Meena is matched by the completely arresting magnetism of Denzel Washington as her love interest, Demetrius. Denzel wields control even as he plays soft-spoken and noble-minded. He is attractive here. The world turns on his axis. They were a two-sided awakening for me, a bi-panic-inducing pairing.
The film is about sex, sensuality, girlhood, and the way the racial politics of men are staked out on women’s bodies.
When I first watched this film, my legs were tucked up under me, like I was engaging in the most indulgent, treacly, blush-worthy of activities. They bring such sensuality and lingering intimacy to their scenes together that you feel like a voyeur drinking them in.
With the heat and humidity that clings to every scene and the chemistry between the leads, the story steers headlong into the sensual. There’s a lot of long glances, hangdog expressions as Demetrius leans on the doorway to watch Meena, and soft touches. There’s one phone call when the screen splits in two to show the couple flirting with each other on either side of the line, moving suggestively beneath bedsheets that barely cover them. It’s raw in that there aren’t effects to frame them. It’s unexpected because when have brown girls been allowed to simply exist in their sexuality? When they’re not wrapped in the arms of the hero taking a throttling kiss or being relegated to a series of body parts that flash across the screen? It emanates power. It’s also what earned the film an R rating for sensuality and language.
It’s interesting to watch this film again now, after years of doing my own emotional excavation to understand my needs and desires. There was a time, from high school through my early twenties, where it felt like dating was out of bounds, an alien practice for other people maybe but not for me. My parents’ discomfort with it was validated in my community, where so many of my cousins and friends kept boyfriends and girlfriends secret or else broke up with them to “focus on school.” What would they say? How would you explain it?
The messiness of attraction and desire was so uncomfortable for me, as a result, that it made me feel separated from my body, like the way the yolk is separated from the cloudy egg white. And so then when it did arrive it burst forth in a damaging, secretive way, where my teenage heartbreaks were mine alone and my parents didn’t recognize me when they discovered the truth. I was made to feel ashamed for what I did, like a child, without full understanding of what I was meant to do with all the feelings I had. Where do you go when there are no exits?
When we talk about putting people who look like us on-screen, we talk about the great creative frontiers that exist beyond the walls we’ve put up—we think about how seeing Black and brown people on a spaceship could encourage future scientists. We don’t think about what simply seeing characters who look like us falling in love and having sex can do. How it can upset what we’ve been told about ourselves from well-meaning, oppressive sources. The way sexuality is denied to South Asian women but also assumed and expected from us is a cruel gauntlet. Traditional female life—keeping house, taking care of the children, maintaining the marriage—demands sex, but we can’t talk about that. It always happens off-screen and behind double sets of closed doors. And sex that verges into the taboo—interracial, queer, self-pleasure—only exists in safe spaces.
But for Meena and Demetrius, that’s where the conflict lies. Their car-accident meet-cute turns into a vengeful lawsuit, so Meena’s male relatives get pulled into their love affair. These men are sexually frustrated, possessive, and bored. They talk to Demetrius about solidarity between people of color: “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, we’re all the same. All us people of color must stick together.” But when there’s the threat of love, of sex, between Meena and Demetrius, the tune changes. The men come across the young couple out of town and fly into a rage. (Demetrius and Meena had left their hometown of Greenwood for a trip to Biloxi to escape that very thing, but Meena’s relatives find them anyway.) Anil, whose car was wrecked earlier, pushes into their hotel room while they’re in bed together, screaming, “I’m warning you . . . Listen, you leave our women alone!”
It’s egregious. Meena comes home to face the shame of her family. Demetrius gets upbraided for picking a girl outside his community. They’re wounded. Even as Demetrius talks to Meena’s father, he’s rebuffed. Jay maps this latest hurt onto his unhealed scars about his land and fleeing his home. “Once I was like both of you,” he says. “I thought I could change the world. Be different. But the world is not so quick to change.” He’s scared for Meena to struggle here, he tells Demetrius, as he did. And Demetrius sets him right—he’s a Black man born and raised in Mississippi. He knows struggle. And he knows about the cowardice of Indians who might be dark-skinned but claim proximity to whiteness and superiority over Black people. It feels like an ancient conversation, weighed down with decades of history. Meena is only a small part of what they’re talking about.
When Nair was shooting in Greenwood at the beginning of the 1990s, she told BOMB magazine, she couldn’t rent a house for Denzel to stay in because she wasn’t white. “[This is] Greenwood, where Stokely Carmichael first coined the slogan, ‘Black Power,’” she said. “Now it’s just a sleepy town where they call racism ‘tradition.’ An interesting word . . . It’s a place where old attitudes continue to carry on, but carry on within a semblance of harmony that, for me, was never entirely convincing.”
Unconvincing harmony. That is the world we all live in. Where one town can have two vastly different histories, with communities laid out on top of each other and feigning coexistence. Everywhere I’ve ever gone, the self-segregation is obvious. In Houston, with that massive urban sprawl, it’s easy to disappear into the enclave of your subdivision, to reject critical race theory even as immigrant communities continue to move in. In New York, we fight tooth and nail to claim a block in a neighborhood that’s “really coming up”—almost a tenth of the city is overrun with gentrification. In Palo Alto, where I grew up, the tech sector is the monster that consumes from below. Residents have been displaced by the industry that influences every facet of our lives to the degree that streets are lined with RVs and other mobile homes as housing prices push people out. It feels endlessly poetic to me that the Greenwood Nair shot in is the Greenwood in her film, is the Greenwood that we have trouble negotiating with its own history. That it can live that many lives.
Where one town can have two vastly different histories, with communities laid out on top of each other and feigning coexistence.
That unconvincing harmony exists in the film as Meena’s relatives declaim on interracial solidarity but attack Demetrius in his bed. The rage these men felt seeing Meena with Demetrius, when they invoked the plural rather than the singular to address what they saw, sounds so much like what we see General Idi Amin, Uganda’s president from 1971 to 1979, saying in an old television address in a flashback: “Asians have milked the cow but not fed it. They have refused to allow their daughters to marry Africans. They have been here for seventy years. But they live in their own world.”
Daughters. Women. Plural. Like a commodity. Sex offers a liminal barrier between races. The intermixing is required for coexistence but denied. It is unsafe for those involved. It raises eyebrows. It is threatening but assimilative.
There is another scene from the top of the film. One that unsettles me. Meena’s mother, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), is escorted off the bus by Ugandan police and watches as they go through her things. They throw the framed photograph of her husband in his barrister’s robe and wig into the mud. She is wearing a sari that sticks to her body while it rains. She could be a Bollywood heroine singing in a storm, making eyes at the hero. But here, in this scene that is so terrifying, her vulnerability and lustiness is dread-inducing. The men stare at her while her eyes water. They stick the barrel of a rifle into her throat, think better of it, and swipe her necklace off her neck. Is this how a fox feels surrounded by hunters? I know her fear. It sits in my throat every time I take the long way around a group of men on the street. The way the politics and desires of men entrap women just passing through. The film casts these Black men as predators, a tired and racist trope, but also as appendages of a terrifying governmental campaign to rid the country of Indians by harsh means. The audience has a complicated lens to view them through.
Jay’s love for his homeland does not make room for the violence Kinnu experiences or that was threatened against Meena. His purpose is single-minded, and though he gestures at them all returning home, it is only he who does so briefly in the film. It is a love that no one else around him can understand. They’ve all washed their hands of Uganda. He barely even notices Meena and Demetrius together until he can’t ignore it anymore, after their return from Biloxi, and he’s forced to recognize that his daughter is not simply an extension of his own self.
Meena demands her individuality and her ability to make her own decisions about who she loves, but everyone else weighs in. It’s only when she and Demetrius run off together, leaving Greenwood and their families behind, that her decisions are begrudgingly accepted.
Self-determination and sexuality so often go together for women like us, as two things denied and then claimed. The choices I’ve made for myself, to affirm that the person I am is the person I think I am, have often been hurtful for my family. They didn’t understand, for example, why I could want to date or why I might not be as focused on purity before marriage. How much room would they make for my desires that teeter off the edges of the neat square they’ve designed? If I was going to do anything, could I at least bring home a nice Indian boy? If I was going to be sexual, couldn’t it just be by myself where no one could hurt me and I couldn’t hurt my family? It’s an endless pattern of word problems. Is there a way to want without hurting others? Is there a way that want can be respected without being hurt?
Mississippi Masala, to me, is about forcing life open. I am not surprised, for example, that Meena is twenty-four years old in this film. And that this is the first time she has successfully rejected her parents’ expectations for her. I was twenty-six before my parents relented on the idea that I might not be telling them everything about my life and that I might be somehow individual from them. Our coming of age, our movement out of girlhood, sometimes happens a little later.