Mira Nair, Sarita Choudhury and Lydia Pilcher (photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance)
By Bailey Pennick
“It was snowy and warm at the same time,” Mira Nair says when asked about her memories of premiering Mississippi Masala at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. “It truly was such a great embrace from audiences and critics [here].” Now, 32 years later, Nair is back on the Egyptian Theatre stage to share a 4K restoration of her sophomore work with the next generation of the Sundance community as part of the Festival’s 40th Edition Celebration. The response was just as kind, proving the staying power of this romantic classic.
“The film was inspired by being a brown girl in between Black and white in America,” the director explains. “I call it the hierarchy of color.” Mississippi Masala artfully delves into this complex systemic issue by blending the elements of a romantic comedy with a historical drama.
Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is a young Indian woman living in a Greenwood, Mississippi, motel with her extended family who run the place. Refugees from Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda, Mina and her parents keep to themselves — her father writes letters to the new regime in Uganda for his property back, her mother runs a liquor store, and Mina cleans rooms in the motel — while they dream of their old lives. Their routines get turned upside down when Mina rear-ends Demetrius (Denzel Washington) and they exchange cards for insurance purposes. As Demetrius and Mina start exploring being young lovers in the ’90s, the façade of racial unity between minority communities crumbles and suddenly this pair is at the center of a townwide conflict of colorism.
Mississippi Masala feels so authentic simply because Nair put in the legwork and made sure it reflected not only her experiences as a brown woman, but of Black and brown people living in the American South. “Our script came from serious social research,” she says, citing the documentary-style preparation the team did to create this world. “We did over 2,000 interviews of real people in the South and in Uganda, so most of the people in the film are based on real people. Even most of the people actually in the movie [aren’t actors, they’re just regular] people.”
The star of Mississippi Masala continues to be rattled by its message and realism. “My heart always breaks when I watch the end of that story,” says Choudhury at the post-screening Q&A. “But, you know, the younger generation has no choice but to move forward because they don’t have the baggage of the previous generation.” When asked where Demetrius and Mina would be now because the film is so open-ended, Nair shrugs and dodges giving specifics. “Overstatement kills everything,” she says with a smile.