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Mississippi Masala barely scratches the surface of racial conflict

Mississippi Masala
Directed by Mira Nair.
Written by Sooni Taraporevalla.
Starring Denzel Washington
and Sarita Choudhury.
At Loews Harvard Square.
By Danny Su

only scratches the surface of this conflict and fails to provide any deep insight.

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) was born and raised in Uganda until the age of six, when dictator Idi Amin decided to expel all Asians. Mina and her family eventually end up in a small town in Mississippi. Mina works in an Indian-owned motel while her mother runs a liquor store and her father continues to battle the Ugandan government for their lost property. Mina eventually meets a carpet cleaner, Demetrus (Denzel Washington), whom she falls in love with. When their romance is discovered by their respective families, it sets off a confrontation between the two ethnic groups.

Unlike most Hollywood movies or television shows, Mississippi Masala avoids stereotypical portrayals of minority members. There is nowhere an Indian-American who speaks English with a thick accent and runs a 24-hour convenience store like the one found in The Simpsons, or an Afro-American who hangs around street corners all day long and collects unemployment benefits. Instead, we see minority members being portrayed as real human beings with feelings just like anybody else's. But, on the other hand, male Anglo-Saxons, who rarely appear in the movie, receive a different type of treatment. Whenever they make an appearance, something terrible occurs. For example, we see a crazy driver screaming and shouting at Demetrus after Demetrus rear-ended his car; a cold and uncaring banker who threatens to repossess Demetrus' van if he fails to come up the loan payment; the police brutality heaped on Demetrus and Mina during their arrest; teenagers who play loud music and trash their motel room; and an unreasonable customer who complains about the high motel room rates.

Nair does an excellent job of comparing two vastly different cultures, however. Immediately after showing a traditional Indian ritual, she switches to black children singing rap songs in the neighborhood nearby. After a traditional Indian wedding ceremony, she takes the audience to a local club where Mina naturally blends in and dances with everyone else.

There were also moments in the movie that attempt to bridge the gap between the groups. For example, Nair shows how an Indian-American motel owner attempts to resolve a misunderstanding between his friend and Demetrus by offering him tea and talking about sports. He then goes on to say that minorities should unite against all other forces. Later on in the film, Mina goes to Demetrus' house and has lunch with his family. During the preparation and duration of the meal, the audience experiences the harmony between Mina and his family as they exchange words about family values, education, and common interests.

Despite all these fine moments, I feel the film didn't accomplish its objective -- it failed to explore in depth the real reasons behind the racial conflicts. A scene in which Mina and her mother are shopping in the market typifies this problem. While the mother speaks in Hindi, Mina responds in English. For a brief moment, we see a generation gap. But for the remainder of the movie, this feature disappears and we are left to wonder why. When Mina's romance is discovered, we see the agitation of both families. Although the audience can probably guess the reason behind their anger, the movie fails to show us explicitly. I think that this should have been the main focus of the film. Nair should show us both sides, but she does not. Instead, we see only a brief conversation between Demetrus and Mina's father, and a barber explaining to Demetrus that blacks can not stand to see other blacks do well in society.

My biggest complaint about the movie is its ending. The conflict was resolved in a matter of a few seconds. There was no clear explanation of why the resolution came so fast and trouble free. Without giving away the ending, I would much rather have had an in-depth look at the resolution. And despite the title -- Masala, which means spicy in Hindi -- the romance is dull and the confrontation short-lived. This movie probably won't score well in the box office because it is very far from the mainstream. But I applaud the splendid performance turned in by Denzel Washington and the movie's efforts to show the audience a taste of a unfamiliar cultures. Unfortunately, the subject matter can not be treated lightly because that's what real life is all about. For those of you who really want to see a detailed ethnic confrontation, I recommend Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, which LSC will be showing later this semester.