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‘Mississippi Masala’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 14, 1992

Indian director Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala" is a savory multiracial stew that boils over the melting pot and onto the range -- as in home on -- when Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury turn up the flames. An utterly infectious romance between an African American and an Indian African emigre, this seductively funny film measures the pull of roots against the tug of heartstrings. It is also a lesson in the pitfalls of color-consciousness.

Though set mostly in provincial Greenwood, Miss., the movie opens with Idi Amin's expulsion of all Asian Africans from Uganda in 1972. A native of that lush African country (Roshan Seth), his wife (Sharmila Tagore) and their little girl, Mina (Sahira Nair, who grows up to be Choudhury), tearfully leave their home and friends behind for a much poorer life in an Indian-run motel in Mississippi. Here Mina grows into a voluptuous Americanized beauty the color of ripened tobacco. A vivacious 24-year-old with a smile like a crescendo, she dazzles the camera as well as the affable Demetrius (Washington), who initially uses her to make an old flame jealous.

Demetrius, a sweet hunk, is almost living the American Dream as the indebted proprietor of a one-van carpet-cleaning business. His clientele by and large are the Indians whose extended families run the motels in the vicinity, a business relationship that is jeopardized when Demetrius is drawn to Mina like a cat to a sunny ledge. An amazingly sensual couple, they fall truly, madly, deeply in love. But this is a "West Side Story" for the '90s, and both communities decry the relationship -- all for a few shades of brown, as Demetrius points out.

Nair underscores this thought with her warm, richly visual portraits of the quirky motel Indians and Demetrius's close-knit family. A Harvard-educated Indian, she proves every bit as savvy an anthropologist in Greenwood as in her streetwise Indian film, "Salaam Bombay!" She uses the skill here to emphasize the parallels between the diverse groups while never losing sight of the new generation's Americanization. "Traditions are handed down like recipes, you have to know what to eat and what to leave on the plate," Demetrius advises Mina, who's just getting the hang of coping with hidebound relatives.

Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote "Salaam Bombay!," took Nair's idea of making a movie about the hierarchy of color and turned it into this masala, which in India is a collection of hot, colorful spices. Certainly Nair and Taraporevala's story is both spicy and multihued. Not only black and brown, but yellow and white folks are all sent up for their prejudices. One good ol' European American suggests "the Indians be sent back to the reservation." Brahman in moccasins? In this ever-shrinking world of ours, anything seems plausible.

The story loses its focus when it leaves Greenwood to return with Mina's father to Uganda, but with Seth in the role, it is a poignant detour. Seth, who played Papa in "My Beautiful Laundrette," brings a note of pathos to the more often playful story, as does Ugandan actor Konga Mbandu as his estranged childhood friend Okelo. Charles Dutton, TV's "Roc," also stands out as Demetrius's carpet-cleaning partner, which is no small feat opposite a couple as radiant as Washington and Choudhury. When it comes down to it, there is nothing quite like people in love.

Copyright The Washington Post

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