IMDB says… An Indian family is expelled from Uganda when Idi Amin takes power. They move to Mississippi and time passes. The Indian daughter falls in love with a black man, and the respective families have to come to terms with it. Written by Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
The 73rd Virgin says... Our gala Fathers' Day observance begins a week early. This is scored 6.5/10 at IMDB, so once again I'm out of step.
22 years later this still seems like maybe the nerviest movie ever made about race relations. That includes Jungle Fever from the same year. I don’t use the word brave when describing Western Art, transgressive or otherwise. The stakes are never high enough to warrant the term. But nervy applies.
The movie is a jumble of characters and plotlines, but it’s also a fairly straightforward romance set in Mississippi. Masala refers to a blend of spices in south Asian cuisine but, of course, also to the blend of cultures represented in Mississippi, and in our heroine Meena.
Yet it opens in Uganda in 1972, where the Indians who were imported by the British to build railroads have, after a few generations, become a large African middle class. We meet Jay, a successful lawyer and landowner - played by one of the great faces in movies, Roshan Seth – his wife Kinnu, and four year old Meena. Also we meet Jay’s “brother” Okelo, a black African whom Jay has known all his life. They are close enough that Meena calls him Uncle Okelo, and Kinnu hugs him a little closer and longer perhaps than one might expect, all things considered.
But it’s a bad time to be an Indian in Uganda. Gen. Idi Amin has determined that since the middle-class Indians have all the wealth, all he has to do is kick the Indians out and then Ugandans will share in all the wealth left behind. Even as Okelo extracts his friend from a political prison, saves his life and his family, and clearly loves little Meena, he tells Jay “Africa is for Africans. Black Africans”. There are a few mildly harrowing scenes as Amin’s thugs shake down the Indians one last time before kicking them out of the country.
Then we jump to the family’s new home in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1990. Meena is a bored, somewhat careless and bitchy 24-year-old who works as a housekeeper at her cousin’s motel. Her father hardly works now but spends all his time suing the government of Uganda to get his property back. Her mother runs a liquor store where her entire clientele is poor local blacks.
The sense of dislocation for the Indians is emphasized at the great wedding scene where the father of the groom tries to get everyone to sing an old prayer only to find that most of them have forgotten the second verse.
There are closely observed scenes describing the low grade insults that Indians face, but there are also scenes that show the Indians’ own internal racism and preference for light-skinned females. Meena states it baldly, “face it ma you got a darkie daughter”. Director Mira Nair cameos as one of the women explaining the socio-economics of skin color.
The romance begins when Meena rear-ends a local carpet cleaner’s van. The carpet cleaner happens to be Demetrius in the form of Denzel Washington, long before his Training Day physique. But first her parents would prefer she try to capture the local wealthy boy Harry Patel. He ill-advisedly takes her to the local black nightclub and then takes offense at her willingness to dance with the natives. The weakest part of the script involves Demetrius’ old relationship with a local celebrity named Alicia. It only barely serves the story and it feels contrived.
Comedy returns as we watch the dynamic of Meena’s extended Indian family, all of them motel owners, trying to deal with the unpleasant possibility that Demetrius might be one of those Americans who sue for whiplash. An uncle tries to smooth things over the Asian way. A young Charles S. Dutton plays it to the hilt, even throwing in a sly “sho-nuff” and “right on, brother” just for laughs.
Meena comes to meet Demetrius’ kind extended family who devote a great deal of discussion to whether she is Mexican or a squaw or is she from Indianola (MS) or Indiana. In another finely observed scene Demetrius younger brother is deeply impressed that this Indian or Mexican or whatever has actually been to what he considers his homeland of Africa. Tico Wells is very good as the relentlessly callow and media-fed younger brother.
As I rewatched this my first reaction was that the romance scenes between Sarita Choudhury as Meena and Washington seemed to lack chemistry or just seemed dull. But on further review I thought that it’s actually been so long since we’ve seen two fairly realistic characters trying to feel each other out in very uncomfortable circumstances, that maybe I just didn’t recognize well written scenes, very well acted. They are quiet and clumsy and not very interesting, just like watching two strangers fall in love.
When I watched Siskel and Ebert review this 20-odd years ago, they observed that the entire movie takes place with very little interaction with the white people who really run the Mississippi town. It’s a good thing, because the white actors are stilted and poorly cast and not all that well written, but they stay out of the way of the story at least.
Sooner or later the Indian community must discover this relationship and they react poorly. Even the distracted and understanding Jay is upset, and it’s obvious he still carries a great deal of bitterness about how he was treated by black Africans before. There is a doubly wicked subtext buried in the story; given the warmth displayed by mother Kinnu for Okelo, and Meena’s acknowledged darkness, the audience is left to wonder if Meena’s parentage is perhaps in question. But Jay is such a self -obsessed intellectual that it never seems to occur to him – and his wife ain’t sayin’.
After punches are thrown and Demetrius – always viewed as the “good” black, the steady one, the unthreatening one – now appears unstable and unreliable. Most of his local customers drop his carpet cleaning service and the white financial community circles the wagons to threaten the end of his business, and the black community turns on him as well. Here Jay and Demetrius get to the nut of the issue followed by a great back and forth flashback to a younger Jay making bad decisions of his own, and Okelo saving his life.
Even better, as the movie winds down all the major characters are left up in the air somewhat. Demetrius is in trouble, Meena is truly rebelling for the first time, and Jay finally receives word that he may come back to Uganda and present his case to the Ugandan courts, finally free of the psychotic Amin.
In a slapped together but powerful final scene Jay returns to learn the fate of Okelo, to visit his dilapidated abandoned home, and to wordlessly make peace with his black countrymen.
Then disappointingly, the movie chickens out as the credits roll, trying to bring resolution and an upbeat feel to the romance where none is needed. It reeks of studio pressure and loss of creative control but it’s not enough to harm the overall experience.
Director Mira Nair is a Harvard-educated Indian who has made a few great movies, the not-great Vanity Fair, and the flop Amelia. Screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala goes into fairly dangerous territory in both her view of black Americans and her Indian counterparts. As I said, it’s a nervy movie with a marvelously jumbled plot and a great deal of self-aware humor.
As a kid at a Catholic grade school in Kansas I can remember our Weekly Reader magazine with what seemed like an extensive article on Idi Amin. Deep in the thrall of Western self-hatred and perhaps liberation theology, it had much positive to say about Amin and his changes in Uganda. This was not too many years before the mass murders, purges, rumored cannibalism, rivers choked with bodies, Entebbe, etc. Amin finally died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003.