Immigration to the United States is back in the conversation with Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari being nominated for the Oscars. The film follows a South Korean family’s efforts to eke out a living in Arkansas. The culture clash and dislocation that accompany Korean immigrants to the land of easy promise and hard-won victories have previously been examined in films such as Deep Blue Night (1985) and America, America (1988).

In Minari, the family is the unit through which tensions play out. The similarly life-altering experience of an Indian immigrant family is the focus of Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991). The film revolves around a double-layered rupture – that of Indians in Uganda forced to leave a country in which they have lived for generations.

Sharmila Tagore and Roshan Seth in Mississippi Masala (1991). Courtesy Mirabai Films.

While Minari is set in the 1980s, Mississippi Masala begins in 1972 in Kampala. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin has expelled South Asians from the country in his blinkered pursuit of a “Africa is for Africans, Black Africans” policy, as a character in the movie puts it. The purge uproots Jay, a second-generation Ugandan of Gujarati extraction. This is my home, he says woefully.

Jay (Roshan Seth) weeps as he drives to the airport with his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter Mina, leaving behind a well-appointed home, his middle-class status and his very identity as a Ugandan. They move to the United Kingdom and, in the late 1980s, arrive in a small town in Mississippi. Kinnu operates a liquor store and Jay works at a motel, where Mina (Sarita Choudhury) helps out.

The racism that drove out Jay’s family gets a reckoning when Mina falls in love with an African-American man named Demetrius (Denzel Washington). Alarm bells begin jangling on both sides. The local Indian community – including a particularly catty woman played by Mira Nair – is shocked at the inter-racial romance. Mina’s parents are as perturbed as Demetrius’s family. They want her to get married to an Indian man.

Sarita Choudhury in Mississippi Masala (1991). Courtesy Mirabai Films.

Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay treats the clash between races and cultures with lightness and humour. Demetrius’s family and friends are clueless about both India and Africa. Mina is initially mistaken for a Native American and then a Mexican. An Indian-American character, meanwhile, claims, “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, all the same.”

Mild consternation and gentle comedy result from Mina’s rebellion. Jay and Kinnu are no strangers to Black people, which makes Mina’s affair less startling than it would have been if the family had immigrated to the US directly from India. Roshan is not racist – cruelty has no colour, he says – but a concerned father worried about his daughter’s relationship with a working-class American. (The recently released Netflix romcom Namaste Wahala gives some measure of the horror that follows the relationship between an Indian man and a Nigerian woman.)

Strong and warm performances steer the sometimes clunky and disjointed narrative to its moving denouement. Apart from the leads, the cast includes roles for Mohan Gokhale, Ranjit Chowdhry, Mohan Agashe and Anjan Srivastav.

The movie is really the story of Jay, who pursues a court case in Uganda from afar to regain his citizenship and return to the country he calls home. Jay’s anguish, marvellously portrayed by Roshan Seth, provides Mississippi Masala with a lasting kick.

Roshan Seth in Mississippi Masala (1991). Courtesy Mirabai Films.

Also read:

‘Minari’ movie review: Tender performances in a Korean family’s encounter with the American dream

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