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Mississippi Masala: The Ocean of Comings and Goings

<em>Mississippi Masala: </em>The Ocean of Comings and Goings

I often remark that my Punjabi parents immigrated to the American South woefully unaware that they’d brought us to a place with an incurable preexisting condition. Racism doesn’t belong exclusively to the South—the former Confederacy—but it was implemented at industrial scale across the region’s economic, political, and cultural life. Alongside this landscape’s sublime natural beauty—rivers, fields, and bayous—sits the history of America’s unsparing brutality against its Black citizens. On the other side of the world, in South Asia, as well as among its global diasporas, anti-Blackness is embedded in ideas of colorism and caste, in tribal imaginaries and policed lines of “suitable” marriages.

The possibility to live—and to love—across racial borders is the theme of Mira Nair’s extraordinarily prescient and sexy second feature film, Mississippi Masala (1991). Three decades later, it speaks to a new generation as groundbreaking filmic heritage—but also with an almost eerie, prophetic wisdom for how to live beyond the confinements of identity and color. Even by today’s standards, the film is a radical triumph of cinematic representation, centering as it does Black and Brown filmmaking, acting, and storytelling. It is also a genre-defying outlier that would likely be as difficult to get financed and produced today as it was then. Part comedy, part drama, rooted in memoir and colonial history, the film that Nair imagined was a low-budget independent one with global settings and ambitions. The notion of representation—perhaps more accurately described as a correction of earlier misrepresentations—wasn’t its point or its currency. Race was its very subject. Nair has said she wanted to confront the “hierarchy of color” in America, India, and East Africa with the film—the kinds of limitations that she had experienced firsthand by living, studying (first sociology, then film), and making documentaries in both India and the United States. In a shift that began with her first feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988), Nair set out to transform those real-world issues into fictionalized worlds, translating her sociological observations into works suffused with beauty, music, and, in the case of Mississippi Masala, humid sensuality.

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