Watching Mississippi Masala on the eve of Martin Luther King Day

mississippi masala

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” are famous words of Martin Luther King Jr delivered on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C. With those words he changed the course of history, and led the civil rights movement. Fifty-two- years after his death, his message is still very relevant in the universal context as the oppressed people are fighting hard to end social injustice. Such words of wisdom and eloquence are much needed throughout the world as these are very uncertain times. Among the prominent civil-rights leaders of the era, Dr. King stood apart for his call of unity, racial justice and equality for all citizens of the United States.As a nation, America is still struggling with inequalities deeply rooted in prejudice, hatred, fear and hostilities. The third Monday in January of every year (Martin Luther King Day) reminds us how far we have come as a nation to overcome the challenges and difficulties of racial divides. We also make new resolutions about how far we need to push ourselves to keep fighting for what is right and just for our very survival. To quote Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

In contemplating his words against the backdrop of this historic day — on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, the movie Mississippi Masala came to mind. I remembered how unfairly Demetrius was treated in the 1991 film for the color of his skin. The points about racism Dr. King so movingly espoused motivated me to watch it again after many years. The film is considered a hidden relic, directed by acclaimed film maker Mira Nair.I had forgotten the chronology of events that had occurred in the film. Very quickly, I got into it since the movie primarily deals with racism, displacement, and people’s sense of lost identity. During the movie, it makes one analyze the same burning questions: why are we so enthralled in a foreign land which never feels like home? We ask ourselves,do we really belong here, or we belong nowhere? Are we sort of living in a limbo?

The very aptly written screenplay runs parallel with the two phases of the civil rights movement. 1) The struggle for human decency. 2) Genuine equality for all citizens. The landscape of Mississippi Masala consists of black, brown and white people. The movie deals with some of the fundamental rights of a human about longing and privilege to fit in a place that one can really call home. It opens with the Asian Indians being ordered out of Uganda in 1972, after notorious Idi Amin assumed power, as he wanted Africa to be “Black Africa.” Before sending them to exile he confiscated their homes, businesses and the land of thousands of Indians who were living in Uganda. They were brought there by the British to build railroads. By then the Indians had put down roots for three generations. That is the only home that they knew of. A lot of them never ever set foot in India.

The story mainly focuses on Jay, a lawyer and his family in Kampala. After three decades in Uganda, Jay considered himself a Ugandan first, then an Indian. After Jay gave an anti-Idi Amin interview on BBC, he became a target. Throughout the movie Jay remained fiercely loyal to his homeland Uganda. When the evacuation process was well underway, he refused to leave his beautiful home, which he had built. He didn’t want to immigrate to Britain. He failed to understand why he is not welcome in Uganda anymore — a place of his birth, where he grew-up speaking the language, breathing its air, playing and swimming in the same pond with his African friends.

His wife Kinnu thought it was pointless to argue with the regime, and prepares to live an exiled life away from Kampala. Knowing how stubborn Jay could be, and how imperative it was for him to leave the place he called home, his childhood African friend broke it down to him in a language that he would understand. He said, “Jay, this is not your home anymore. Uganda is now for Africans, only black Africans. You are not one of us, so you must leave.”

Visibly stunned, after his friend’s crude pronouncement, a broken hearted Jay boarded an airbus with his wife and young daughter Mina, without saying goodbye to his friend, who came to bid farewell. Jay’s friend only had tried to protect him, but to Jay, it appeared as some kind of betrayal of their close friendship.

Fast forward…the family ends up in Greenwood, Mississippi, USA, an ethnic enclave for the Asian Indians. There in the Deep South, many Indian immigrants are in the motel business. Jay helped to manage a grungy motel for his nephew Anil. Kinnu ran a liquor store in the neighborhood. After finishing High School, Mina couldn’t go to college, for her parents were unable to afford the cost. She also worked at the motel, cleaning the bathrooms, and preparing the rooms for the guests.

Kinnu told her dark-skinned daughter that she wants her to marry someone within their extended community of Indian exiles in Greenwood. She reminded Mina of the century old Indian adage: “you can be dark and rich, or light and poor, but not dark and poor.”

24 year-old Mina didn’t understand her mother’s Eastern values, living in a community where most people are blacks and whites. Finding herself in a minority community, she felt totally isolated.

Mina ended up falling in love with Demetrius, a black boy, a carpet cleaner in the area motels. The parts of Mina and Demetrius are played by Sarita Chowdhury and Denzel Washington. Demetrius was a proud boy who had worked very hard to own his cleaning business. The transplanted version of Romeo/Juliet story began. The film offers a rare depiction of interracial relationships between two non-white people. It was uncommon in 1991 that romance will blossom between a South Asian woman and a black man. The Indian community didn’t interact much with the town’s whites or blacks. Despite the Indian motel owner Jammubhai’s profound pronouncement asserts, “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican. We’re all the same,” interracial dating faced ostracism and prejudice.

When their romance became public, we saw everyone thinking in stereotypes, and no one had any real interest or curiosity in knowing the other race, except the young couple who were in love. It doesn’t take long to realize that prejudice against blacks is hidden under the guise of solidarity. These exiled Indians do not really know how to mix with the area’s black and white people. Many of the characters who grew up in Uganda or America had no contact with India, and yet, they remained very loyal to their Indian roots. Intolerance and racism showed its ugly face on all sides and it became a huge barrier in giving the romance further chance to blossom. All the Indians in the community became freshly energized and united in their collective outrage by the romance of Demetrius and Mina. This is the uneven ground between black and brown that Mira Nair wanted to point out through these characters.

Mina’s parents and other Indian families banded together in breaking them up. The black community was outraged as the Indians refused to call Demetrius for his services in their motels. He defaulted on his bank loans, and was about to lose his business.

I am not giving away the ending.

The film is an eye-opener in portraying how Asian Indians and blacks in America view one another in a majority white culture. The heated argument between Jay and Demetrius about why Mina couldn’t see him is something significant. The color of Demetrius’ skin was the underlying problem for the young couple to be together, as Jay gave him a subtle hint. Demetrius refused to accept it, and told Jay that he of all people should understand that he was only a few shades lighter than his black skin. He also reminded Jay that he by no means was white. A dispirited Demetrius told Jay after the way he had left Uganda; he should be more tolerant of another race; instead of acting like a white master.

Demetrius voiced something profound to Mina as well, on their first outing. In the scene Mina was telling him about different masalas and their colors, and the allure they create in making a flawless dish to spice up Indian food. Amused Demetrius conveyed to Mina that the spices in a way are like metaphors to all diverse people living in America, who are of different shades and colors. It too is making me contemplate how very well we all immigrants fit that profile.

As a topic, the movie Mississippi Masala is particularly relevant against today’s political backdrop.However, the irony is: in making a perfect dish, all the different masalas blend in together; whereas under the canopy of human togetherness, people of different colors don’t get along so well in living side by side. Each race is different in their happiness, sadness, distrusts, rivalry and discontentment. At a first glance, all different races may seem like different colors of Mississippi Masala, which has the potential to create a perfect balance. In reality, however, they are disconnected by culture and race. They differ in million ways about the way they perceive one another.

Zeeant Khan is a fiction writer and a columnist.




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