A Minority Within a Minority

Film `Mississippi Masala' paints a picture of ethnic conflict in the American South

THE position of racial and ethnic minorities in American life is a subject that never loses relevance, and it's encouraging to note that filmmakers have been devoting more attention to it in the past couple of years.

"Mississippi Masala" is such a picture, focusing on a minority that has never been heard from before in an American movie. Directed and written by two Indian-American filmmakers - Mira Nair and Sooni Taraporevala, respectively - it centers on a family that's originally from India, but lived in the troubled African nation of Uganda long enough to consider that country its real home.

When dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from Uganda in the early 1970s, the family traveled to England and then to the United States, settling in Mississippi, a place with its own share of racial tensions. Now the clan operates a motel, considers itself middle class, and gets along nicely with most of the locals.

Trouble starts when the youngest member of the family, 23-year-old Mina, gets romantically involved with an African-American man. As in Spike Lee's recent movie, "Jungle Fever," nobody feels quite comfortable with this arrangement - not the African-Americans, not the African-Indian-Americans, and certainly not Mina's parents. Only the young folks themselves think their relationship is a good idea; and even they have reason to doubt when social pressures start crowding in from every side.

The title of "Mississippi Masala" refers to Mina's image of herself as a "masala," or mixture of different spices. She is certainly that, with a heritage that encompasses Indian traditions, African memories, and American pop culture. The film portrays its other characters with equal seriousness, including the parents who see their Indian-African heritage as a balance wheel in their lives, and want Mina to share their feelings more than she feels capable of doing.

The movie also brings us to Uganda, showing why political bitterness lingers in Mina's family long after the events that caused their exile; and it devotes a fair amount of energy to exploring relations between the Indian subculture and the conservative Mississippi majority that surrounds it.

With so many things on its mind, "Mississippi Masala" takes quite a while to get its story told, and sometimes the story wanders a bit, veering away from its most interesting concerns.

At the end of the picture, you feel it's taken too long to reach a final message - home is where the heart is - that's not very original to begin with.

Still, the picture is full of rich and convincing details, thanks to director Nair and screenwriter Taraporevala, whose previous movie together, "Salaam Bombay," was widely praised for its vivid depiction of a poor boy's life in an Indian slum.

Sarita Choudhury gives a memorable performance as Mina, and Denzel Washington leads a talented supporting cast. "Mississippi Masala" is too ambitious for its own good, but it takes you to parts of the world - and parts of the American scene - that have waited too long for a place on the wide screen. Rated R for sensuality and language.

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