'Mississippi Masala' sees the spice of life among victims of racism

February 28, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If I tell you "Mississippi Masala" is a syncopation of droll racial ironies set against the complex tapestry of our troubled times, you probably won't want to see it because I will have made it sound like a kind of medicine. If I tell you it's an amazement, maybe you will.

And it is an amazement. And it is a syncopation of droll racial ironies set against the complex tapestry of our troubled times. ZTC It's about the victims of racism who confront and conflict with and, occasionally, connect with each other in the awkward shadow of their oppressors.

White people are barely visible; the movie is set on the bottom rungs of society in Greenville, Miss., unseen and unvisited by the burghers of the new south or the mandarins of the old. But among the people of color, life teems with possibility, confusion, joy and pain.

The color of these people is brown-black, and all are victims: it's just that some of the brown-black are African-Americans, and some are African-Indians -- all are American citizens. All are thousands of miles and many centuries from a motherland. All are -- in a sense -- exiles scrambling for survival and dignity in the margins of a larger society that would prefer that they not make much trouble, noise or money.

The Indians live in an almost hermetically sealed unit, clinging to their values and their ways against the predations of mass culture. They are already a victim of one exodus, driven from Africa (where they had been deposited many years earlier by the British) by Idi Amin. They are, therefore, victims of racism. Here, the aging barrister Jay (Roshan Seth) festers in bitterness, longing for his home amid the perfumed gardens and verandas of Uganda. He watches his daughter mature and face an uncertain future. She is an Indian born into a comfortable African lifestyle, but now trying to make her way in an American South under less than desirable circumstances.

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is entering voluptuous womanhood at 23 with no true goal in her life, unsure which of the many cultural possibilities she wishes to pursue, if any. She's working as a motel cleaning lady. (Has any movie in history ever been made about a motel cleaning lady?) None of the Indian boys attract her (though she attracts them). One day, by accident, and the next night, by another accident, she encounters Demetrius.

Demetrius (Denzel Washington) is trying oh-so-very hard to make it in a world that probably does not have his interests at heart. He's obtained a bank loan, bought a van, and by the dint of hard work has built up a business as a carpet cleaner, catering mostly to the motel trade. It isn't easy. But in some way it's noble -- in fact, Washington's down-home integrity and decency may be the most affecting portrait of a black man in an American film since Larry Fishburne's father in "Boyz N the Hood." "Masala," by the way, means "spice"; the movie, therefore, is about the spice of life.

This couple wants so much more, and deserves so much more. When they settle on each other, the small, societies that spawned them prettymuch go bananas. It's the oldest of stories, the Romeo-Juliet thing.

Effortlessly brilliant, Mira Nair's direction carries us into two distinct and wholly believable groups. But while it makes each group come alive with extraordinary ferocity, it also manages to underscore, always, the human commonality between both -- and all groups. Nair, an Indian-born, Harvard graduate who won a worldwide reputation with "Salaam, Bombay!" (1988) manages a rather large miracle: a two-hour film with the density and humanity of a Dickens novel, a wide cast of believable and lovable characters, a tone that varies from farce to lust to love to hate, all built from the dreams and memories and aspirations of people a long way from their motherlands. No American film this year can touch it.

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