After being lost in the tendrils of rights issues for many years, Mira Nair’s 1991 masterpiece Mississippi Masala is finally being brought back to audiences with a gorgeous new 4K restoration from Janus Films. Premiering the restoration at the 2021 New York Film Festival, there’s been a euphoria surrounding this re-release in a way that’s difficult to describe. Many resurrections of lost films each year develop a fervent passion from the film-loving community, but there’s something special about what’s happening with Mississippi Masala.
Maybe it has to do with how specifically beautiful the film is. Developed with her longtime creative partner, writer Sooni Taraporevala, it’s a story of love between Mina (Sarita Choudhury, in her debut role), a brown woman, and Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a Black man, in Greenwood, Mississippi. It’s also a story of pain, as Mina has ended up in Mississippi due to the exile of Ugandan Indians that took place in the early 1970s that forced her and her family, including her father Jay (Roshan Seth), out of their home.
I spoke with Mira Nair about how the film feels as radical today as it did upon its initial release, and her unique way of capturing love in all of its physical and emotional forms. And yes, we talk about that phone call scene — perhaps the sexiest scene in cinema history.
The Film Stage: I bought Mississippi Masala used on DVD for like $100 several years ago, and that was the only way I was able to watch it before now. It’s one of my favorite films of all-time.
Mira Nair: Oh my God!
I don’t know the last time I’ve seen people so unanimously excited for a film’s restoration. What kind of emotions have you been feeling lately as you’ve seen this outpouring of love showered upon the film?
Oh, Mitchell, it’s so exciting. And it just makes me step lightly. [Laughs] Because, you know, we made something that was radical and unseen and beautiful and fun, also. It’s incredibly fun! I never expected to feel that way. When I was restoring it, I just felt it was completely standing up. Not only that, but really it was like nothing had happened in the last thirty years when it comes to the brown-Black axis that was even vaguely effective. It hadn’t happened. Now we are talking about global interconnectedness and we are talking about Black, brown, every life mattering, and there really isn’t anything like what we did. It’s just amazing.
The film really stood up, and I felt very happy that today’s generation—my son is 30 years old, and that whole younger generation are going to find the film for the first time. I think it’s not a homework job, you know? It’s not a history test. It is something that makes you feel very up, and it’s Denzel and Sarita, who bloody hell sizzle on the screen. [Laughs] I came back this morning from a weekend with my writer, Sooni. I hadn’t met her in three years. No one’s met each other during COVID, and I got to spend time with Sooni, and also with my niece, Sahira, who plays the young Sarita in the film. The three of us spent the weekend together just toasting Mississippi Masala. [Laughs] It’s been so long, and it made us very happy, I must say.
You touched on it a bit there, but could you tell me more about what stood out to you when you were revisiting the film for the restoration? Were there certain elements that drew your attention more today than they did thirty years ago?
There’s a great frankness and bravery in the film. It is clothed in a kind of direct humor, and the humor is really coming from the people themselves. That’s how Sooni and I looked at it, and we loved that stuff. You know, all of that “all us people of color must stick together” stuff with the older men and everything. [Laughs] These kinds of wild references.
This film, as well as Salaam Bombay!—my first film—really came out of hardcore social science research. We really lived in the motels. We met hundreds of motel owners. We hung out, we prayed with them. We went to the African-American community all the time, just to understand the politics and the hierarchy of it. We also saw how the Indians kept to themselves in terms of never employing anyone from the outside—except for the Black community for carpet cleaning. Those kinds of details came to us from the anthropology of life, right there in the motel life. It all felt incredibly real but also incredibly funny, and that was just fabulous.
Of course I remember the sensuality of it and the radical quality of having brown and Black skins in one frame. When the film came out, back in 1991 or 1992, it was hugely embraced for that alone. No one had seen that. It became an anthem of hybridity. Interracial couples who had never been shown onscreen in any way: those were the people who flocked to the movie in any country that was publicizing it. I felt that I saw that in the audience. All those things came back to me, but mostly the politics—the sexuality and the politics, the combination of that.
I don’t know if you feel this way, Mitchell, but now people are a little bit imprisoned by political correctness. We censor ourselves. This time, when we made the film, we were fabulously, wonderfully irreverent, but with a lot of affection—always with affection, never just to poke fun at people. It was very affectionately irreverent, in a way you almost couldn’t do today. So that also struck me. We really put ourselves out there, in terms of capturing the nuances and the contradictions of the deep south, and of course of Uganda and the broader relationships across the world of this story.
It really was such a radical film at the time, but as you mentioned it still feels like such a breath of fresh air when you watch it today. It’s such a rarity, particularly given that focus on an interracial relationship that also doesn’t feature a white character as one of the leads. Is it surprising to you that there hasn’t been more progress in the last three decades in terms of representing this kind of a relationship on screen?
Absolutely. It’s shocking. And not just the fact that we have not seen this kind of relationship on screen, but that the racism within our communities has not changed. It still flourishes, and that’s the real wake-up call. That’s been sobering, in fact. The film still, therefore, feels contemporary. It’s not like it’s dated because now the doors are open in all communities. It’s nothing like that at all.
I was just directing National Treasure in Baton Rouge, in Louisiana. I just came back a couple of weeks ago. I was there for a few months, and I jumped on the Amtrak and went to Greenwood, Mississippi. It was like three hours away. I walked the streets from where we shot Mississippi Masala. I went to the bayou. I went everywhere we had filmed, just to check it out, and I’ll tell you: nothing has changed. It’s still this sort of deadbeat town except for one hotel. It’s still as segregated in this way that only the south does, where it’s seemingly integrated but it’s not like that at all.
Still, a person like me—an Indian person—still stops traffic. People still stop and look, like “Oh my God, where are you from?” And that’s just the niceties, really. I know from being there that life hasn’t changed. The economics of it are the same—there’s still that element of the rich and the poor, and who’s playing who—so that will be very interesting to bring back out into the world with the film because it’s political but it’s also fun and entertaining. It’s not a lecture in any way. And it’s got these extraordinary performances. Or I guess I shouldn’t say that. [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, definitely say it. It’s absolutely true.
These extraordinary performances between these two people, who you never see like that. Especially Denzel. He hasn’t ever done a romantic love story since then. I guess I can’t say that for sure, but I haven’t seen it. He was so gorgeous and vulnerable, both at the same time. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens, I think, when you’ve got a consummate actor like him opposite a person who’s never acted before, but who has the fierce intelligence and sensuality that Sarita has. There’s a wonderful truth that happened with them.
I’ve tried to do the same thing so many times with other first-time actors and legends opposite each other. There’s a beautiful lack of artifice that I love. That’s what we went for, even in the shooting. We didn’t want it to be over-cut. It was all more or less designed as unfolding takes so that you really felt the seesaw of love. I really enjoyed all of that—the things you do when you’re not contaminated by the world too much.
When you and Sooni were doing research, you traveled to Uganda—where you met your husband Mahmood Mamdani. The fact that you were making the film while falling in love translates so well, because watching it emanates that exact feeling—that indescribable surge of electricity. Do you think Mississippi Masala would have been a different film if you weren’t falling in love while you were making it?
I definitely think it would’ve been a different film, and a different story. Mahmood was one of the Ugandan exiles. He was a Ugandan Asian who was expelled in 1972 by Idi Amin, his family and him, and he wrote a book on the expulsion, which is the book I read that became part of our research for the screenplay. Post-war, it was soldiers and roadblocks—just like when the movie begins. We saw an insider’s view of Uganda in the post-war. You’ve still got birthdays and weddings and life is carrying on around these soldiers and roadblocks, and it was through Mahmood that we entered that zone of life that looked sort of as if there was nothing. There was a war zone, a war-torn place, but it was full of life underneath.
The whole access we had to that life and the building of the story—even the story of the exiled Indians who left, their money being meaningless and how they were blowing it up on the last days and all of that, that all came very much from Mahmood’s own stories and writing and introductions that he made for us to other Indian families who had come back and so on. That whole experience would’ve been very different had I not met him.
In terms of the love, it did empower me because I was the most exultant. It was also difficult in some ways to have this lightning bolt, just for… other reasons. [Laughs] It was going to need to translate onto the screen because, after all, when you fall for someone who will rock your world in this real, literal way, it’s just not simple and done. You have to have the madness and the bravery to cope with it, like Mina has to. Mina has to be that person. [Demetrius] does too, but she has a lot more to lose than he would because that’s his turf and she’s the one striking out.
I guess you could say I was empowered by that wonderful surge myself, because I was doing the same thing: I was turning my life upside down. Instead of moving to Los Angeles I was moving to war-torn Uganda, where I had no phones for three years and so on and so forth, but I could keep going. When you know something from the inside, you have a much better way of translating it onscreen.
When I got approved to do this interview the first thing I wrote down was that I had to ask about the phone call scene. I truly feel it’s the sexiest scene in film history, and it’s one where they’re not even physically together. The way it’s assembled—what they’re wearing, what they’re not wearing, the framing of the characters, the little physical touches (like Denzel’s hand on his stomach and the focus on Sarita’s leg pushing the sheet down)—all communicates that sensuality so effectively. Talk me through the construction of that scene.
The wonderful thing about this movie is that they didn’t get in my face while I was making it. I didn’t have hundreds of notes and hundreds of men in suits killing me. It’s always like that—you tighten your belt and you have a lesser budget, but you have freedom. There was no one there to fuck that scene up, basically. It was always conceived pretty much like you’re seeing it, which is top-down, looking down at them with the split-screen. What happens in that, when you’re not with each other and you’re longing for each other, is that you are revealing your longing. You’re revealing yourself in an uncensored way. Because you’re alone. It’s funny, too, you know? “What are you wearing?” “A t-shirt.” “We have so much in common.” It was like tongue-in-cheek, like let’s just pretend to speak but actually I’m just kissing you all over. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
Absolutely. It felt totally reminiscent of the feeling I have when I’m on the phone with my partner, and you’re so enamored and disconnected from the rest of the world.
That’s the thing. We all grew up in that phone call culture. We did not have FaceTime and all of that. So it was also about expressing that desire. In the movie business, in shooting her and shooting him, they’re revealing their desire to my camera while expressing their desire for each other. It’s sort of the most revealing piece of everything, isn’t it? And they really got it. What can I say, Mitchell? They really understood my own desire. They performed that heat so beautifully.
I also think it really helps that they hadn’t done it a hundred times before in a hundred movies, you know? It wasn’t like those cookie-cutter sort of loveless love scenes that you see. It’s pretty unfettered. We were shooting consistently to try and preserve that beautiful, awkward sea of lust, love, and longing. Where it’s not all cut-up and manicured and cut to smithereens. You’re actually showing it like it is, so sometimes it’s awkward, and sometimes it’s precisely the awkwardness that’s so sexy or sensual. It’s so revealing, in what it says of their souls and their desire. I was very happy with that scene, even when we were shooting it, because they got it. They really got this thing. They were playing, and it was about playing. It wasn’t so serious.
Your films, whether it’s this or Monsoon Wedding or Kama Sutra, have such a tremendous way of communicating body language and facial expression much more than spoken word. I think of a scene like their kiss by the bayou—you have those long takes where you’re observing them and get to feel them in that space together before they kiss. It’s almost like you feel the kiss is happening before it actually happens. How important is that focus on body language for you?
Totally. I think it comes from the fact that I come from here, from India and from other places, not just the American reality. So in always trying to tell my own stories, or our stories, I never wanted to get into a subtitled universe, you know? I wanted you to just be in it with me, because we are not objects. We are just like you and I, so let’s get to the humanity and the universality of who we are and what we long for, rather than giving you a lecture about how to read or what means what—like what does it mean if I wear red, or whatever the nonsense of any of that is. I want you to be in that moment rather than reading the moment.
That was number one, always in all of these films you’ve mentioned. It’s the same thing: where you take away the words as much as you can to communicate the emotion. That came from being an outsider in several societies, and yet wanting to bring my society or my story to the forefront in the way I could. The other thing was that I come from a tradition of cinéma vérité, you know, like Ricky Leacock, Pennebaker. Don’t manipulate the world. Record it, but surrender to it and then make something of it. That’s the tradition I was taught and came out of. It’s infinitely, I think, more powerful sometimes and peculiar and stranger than fiction can be. I love that. I love how we reveal ourselves in the real world.
The bayou, that’s why we had the long takes because that’s how you see how people express themselves. The reason you feel that way about the kissing—that they’re kissing before they’re kissing—is that you feel the desire that they feel to kiss. And then the awkwardness, that beautiful awkwardness. How will I make the move? And where’s the dance going to take me? That type of thing. It’s that beautiful southern courtesy, which I love, in which he virtually asks her, “May I kiss you?” That is so beautiful. To be looked after by this desire, rather than being an object of desire, that’s really what I was going for.
I find all of that incredibly cinematic because you see yourself in it. You see it is human. But you also don’t see that onscreen much because they cut it up into something else. Something either sanitized, or the opposite way and totally not sanitized and just raunchy. I love that seesaw, that feeling of what should I do next? Will his fingers touch mine, or should I touch his? It’s so beautiful. I come from a tradition where eros is not about just nakedness at all. It’s like the sight of a woman’s ankle in a movie is much more erotic than seeing her naked. What is important is not revealed to the eye, like The Little Prince said. What is essential is not revealed. That was the principle on which those love scenes, or any scenes, were shot.
One word that does come to mind for me often when watching the film is “home.” Whether that’s Jay being forced to leave his home, or Mina explaining the film’s title and how she’s a mix of everything from everywhere, or Demetrius being someone whose home is in America but because of the color of his skin he is sometimes treated like it’s not. What does the word “home” mean to you?
The idea of home is a beautiful and complicated feeling. I was just telling my husband that the weather in Delhi—which is not exactly where I grew up, but where I’ve lived since I was 18 years old, since my college years—it makes me feel like home because I’m used to the particular seasons of this weather, of this climate and how extraordinary the air is and the weight of the heat. It brings you home. It’s an interesting sensation.
I would say I’ve lived this life that these characters lived. Jay, the father, sees when he returns to Uganda—and sees his home wrecked—that his family and where they are, that’s home. You cannot just step in the same river twice, as Demetrius says. That is something I do believe in myself, that home is where the heart is. Just to speak personally, I’m also a gardener, so when I put roots in the soil, Mitchell, we live in that house. That’s our home. Now the house in Uganda is where we live, where my son was born, where many trees have been put in the soil. There is a great sense of rootedness there, but I also have the same thing in Delhi, where I’m talking to you from. This is where I grew up, and here it is much more the feeling of the heart because my family is here. My mother is here, my brothers, my whole extended family is here. But New York is my creative home, and has really been like a mother to me in all my years of making movies. So we really have three homes.
I would say, to answer your question, that my answer is the same as what Jay Patel says to his wife at the end of Mississippi Masala —it is where the heart is. Although the physical sense of home is becoming more and more important as I get older. I want to be in this weather that I have loved since childhood. However harsh it is, it’s familiar.
It’s funny you connect it with the weather, because I’m from England where it’s of course very rainy and gloomy all the time, but I live in Delaware in the States now. It’s really gray and rainy today, though, so I woke up feeling that bit of home here.
Yeah, I felt it today. It’s unusually hot, but it was just beautifully familiar.
I wanted to end by saying thank you so much for this wonderful conversation, and for making this film that I adore and that really means a lot to me.
I’m so glad to hear that it means so much to you. It’s so nice to hear that one can make things that last—that makes anything that lasts, and that speaks to a new audience today. It’s just a great feeling. Thank you so much, Mitchell.
The 4K restoration of Mississippi Masala is playing at IFC Center now from Janus Films, with additional locations coming soon, and a release on Blu-ray / DVD from the Criterion Collection coming May 24.