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‘Mississippi Masala’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 14, 1992

When a car driven by an Indian woman slams into the back of Denzel Washington's carpet-cleaning van, it's the start of an extended rainbow collision of Asian immigrants and rural blacks. It may be longwinded here and there, but "Mississippi Masala" jumps with life. There's an ebullient, lusty mood to it. The characters have a crazy, eccentric rhythm of their own. It's fun to watch them be.

The woman (Sarita Choudhury) has come a long way to hit Washington's rear bumper. Her well-to-do family was expelled from homeland Uganda in the early 1970s by Idi Amin. Some intervening travels later, they've wound up in Greenwood, Miss., to join a mini Indian community that runs a motel. Washington happens to clean rugs for these guys. The connections are many. When the imminent romance kicks in, it's time for an updated clash of caste-conscious Capulets and hardscrabble Montagues.

This serio-comic farce was mischievously conceived by screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala and director Mira Nair, the team that gave you "Salaam Bombay!" The movie's a racial joke in triplicate: Choudhury has never been to India, insists she's Ugandan and now finds herself dumped in Mississippi. Multiple ironies apply to the other side, of course. When Washington invites Choudhury home for a barbecue, she's the only one who has been to Africa.

"What's Africa like?" asks Washington's brother Tico Wells. "It's not like 'Shaka Zulu,' is it?"

"Masala" doesn't dwell on seriousness, though there is much of it. The opening sequence is about the Indian family's expulsion from Uganda, and the terror perpetrated on them by Amin's goons. Later, when the affair of Washington and Choudhury becomes apparent, it makes for tears, anger and deep-seated racism. Similarities to Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," also about interracial controversy, are inevitable. But this movie deals better with the subject. For one thing, it's free of its own inner racism. Lee's movie assumes all interracial attractions are the result of a superfluous, skin-deep, sexual curiosity. "Masala" tells us that color-blind love is normal, but in-laws, friends and neighbors will always mess it up.

The movie's greatest element is its human presence -- as liberated by director Nair. Her flair for allowing documentary-like human detail is apparent. She allows even the most extraneous characters to blossom comically. The displaced Indians are particularly amusing, as they try to cope with this strange country called America, in this even weirder place called Mississippi.

"You gonna need the black guy's name for the in-surance," says a white local to Choudhury after the fateful car incident. As she walks past him, he stares shamelessly at her backside.

Washington and newcomer Choudhury pursue the affair with sensitive, tentative progress. He exudes his playful, pleasant air; she has a shy, sensual presence, an exiled Indian princess stuck cleaning motel toilets. But Nair doesn't back away from intimacy. There's a scene of realistic, utter longing, in which Washington calls Choudhury to confess his desire. They're both in their beds, down to near nudity. It's a steaming implication of a scene, she shifting around under satin sheets, he lying on his back in boxer shorts.

That scene owes much to cinematographer Ed Lachman, who finds a wonderful range of hues in everything from landscapes to skin tones. The family's erstwhile house in Kampala, Uganda, is at the top of a gorgeous, green world. It's unmistakably clear why Choudhury's father (Roshan Seth) is obsessed with getting it back. As for the lovers, Lachman gives them distinctness and fusion; a romantic blending -- at this end of the racial spectrum -- never looked richer.

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