On a crisp Saturday night at the 2021 New York Film Festival, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala splashed vivid colors and sweeping vistas of Uganda and Mississippi onto an outdoor screen, surrounded by the concrete habitat of Lincoln Center. A young and charismatic Denzel Washington as Demetrius and an impossibly beautiful Sarita Choudhury as Mina exchanged glances on-screen, filling the space with magic. Moviegoers watched, socially distanced, with individual headphones that produced a high-quality sonic experience yet closed off the collectivity of shared audience responses (like the hollers that follow that sex scene).
Mississippi Masala resonates decades after its release in the US, a little over 30 years ago, and is soon to be entered into the Criterion Collection. A love story wrapped in histories of postcolonial displacement, settler colonialism, and the shadows of Jim Crow, Mississippi Masala offers an account of the cruel circuitous routes of displacement and migration to the American South. The film asks us to be attentive not only to this story of love but also to the policing of women’s sexuality, the competing status of “colored nations” (as W. E. B. Du Bois put it) under British and American colonialisms, and the alliances formed and broken at the nexus of race and capital in the US.
The film offers a story of how we might nuance our understandings of the new diasporas of South Asian America: how we might empathize with the immigrants who faced xenophobia and antibrown racism, the people crushed under endless labor and the weighty expectations of the Model Minority myth, while also confronting racism and structures of domination within the South Asian diaspora.
The Indian diaspora in the US has always been imagined in the American political landscape as a people neither here nor there. Yet Mississippi Masala asks: What might it mean to forge a politics explicitly based on an investment in the places where we are, rather than in an imagined ideal of the places from which we came?
The Politics of Policing
The film remains a singular depiction of the complicated intimacies of Black and South Asian (desi) lives in America. Mississippi Masala revolves around several themes: the exhaustion of exile, painful loss, and young love. It tells a love story that unfolds in Greenwood, Mississippi, between Mina, daughter of Ugandan Indian exiles, and Demetrius, a young Black man, son of a restaurant worker, who owns his own small business cleaning carpets in Indian-owned motels. Encircling this love story is a larger narrative of Asian expulsion from Uganda.
The film opens in 1972, in Idi Amin’s Uganda, where the police are charged with expelling Indians from the country. The scene depicts Jay, a defense lawyer, being arrested and imprisoned. Jay resists the orders of expulsion, maintaining his birthright as a third-generation Ugandan. This refusal causes a rift with his best friend, Okelo, who explains Idi Amin’s Asian expulsion order as “Africa is for Black Africans.” Heartbroken and alienated, Jay and his family (with a young Mina) are forced to carry whatever meager belongings they can and seek refuge, first in London and then in Mississippi. Later in the film, when Jay returns to Uganda, we learn of Idi Amin’s ruthless, militarized killings of dissenting Black citizens, including Okelo, from whom Jay had cut himself off out of stubbornness, pride, and a hardening anti-Black racism.
Police, policing, and cruel authoritarianism link Uganda and the United States; the paramilitary forces of the former parallel the oppressive local police in racist Mississippi. The film’s Mississippi story picks up with a small fender-bender between Mina and Demetrius, whereupon the responding white police officer embodies the racialized policing and fear of incarceration for a young Black man. Southern police govern everyday relationships in an ever racially divided landscape. In the scene that sets off the third act, as Mina and Demetrius share an intimate afternoon in a motel room, they are attacked by Mina’s Indian male relatives, who burst in, hurling abuse. The police, when they arrive, immediately arrest Demetrius and Mina. The humiliation of Demetrius’s arrest is profound for his family. Today, as the Movement for Black Lives spans the globe, Mississippi Masala offers evidence of an earlier moment in the enduring global problem of policing and the overlapping power of paramilitarism, racialized policing, and immigrant exclusion.
Nor is policing solely the preserve of the state. The Indian immigrant community in Mississippi also harshly judge their Ugandan kin: policing them according to strictures of Hindu social norms, straining kin relationships and causing displacements through vicious practices of shaming. Mississippi Masala vividly enacts the everyday glances and whispers that govern the control of Indian women’s sexuality.
“Mississippi Masala” is a story with many moods, traversing laughter and heartache, the suffocating bind of kinship, and state-produced violence, exclusion, and disappearance.
In a striking scene of a Hindu diasporic wedding, Nair humorously animates a social world of aunties and uncles intent on controlling women. The camera zooms in on the judgmental faces of older married women, who look on with disdain at Mina’s hair, complexion, and comportment. Later, when Mina and Demetrius secretly leave town to meet in Biloxi, her Indian community condemns Mina, age 24, for her choices. The shame that follows this encounter pervades the entire diasporic community back in Greenwood.
Nair’s subtle depiction of Mina’s sexuality—her masala vibes—offers a subversive imaginary of Indian women’s sexuality in the American South, located outside of any given paradigms of normative womanhood. For the Indian social world that surrounds her, Mina is sexually excessive and dangerous, a person who brings bad luck. Yet, in the eyes of the camera, Mina embodies a free woman who both abides by and transgresses social dictates. Nair imagines her as dazzling, appealing in the contradictions of her dutiful yet liberated young womanhood. She is full of possibility and promise, a total inversion of any vision of women’s sexuality as dangerous to the enforced Hindu patriarchal order.
Mina’s flair is juxtaposed with Demetrius’s quiet sensuality, a subtle counterpoint to the pernicious stereotype of Black men’s sexual excess. Nair undermines these twinned racial histories of hypersexuality by offering optimism in a kind of love story never depicted on film before.
The Hindu diasporic community, shown in the movie living alongside the Black inhabitants of Greenwood, remains insular and carries their biases with them. Nair stages a bitingly funny scene, set in a motel room where Demetrius and his friend are working as part of their carpet-cleaning business, where they and the Indian motel owner share a cup of tea. The Indian uncle urges the two Black men to understand, “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, all the same. As long as you’re not white, it means you are colored.” The scene shifts its tone immediately as Demetrius and his friend figure out why the uncle is interested in being kind to them: he is afraid of a lawsuit from the car accident. “Power to the people,” the two proclaim to him, laughing knowingly. The humorous exchange reveals the stark distance between the rhetoric of racial alliance and the reality of race policing that separates Black Americans from Indians, who, as Demetrius proclaims, “ain’t but a few shades” lighter.
Neither Here nor There
Mississippi Masala is a story with many moods, traversing laughter and heartache, the suffocating bind of kinship, and state-produced violence, exclusion, and disappearance. It is a rare testament to refugee mobility, the hierarchies of Indian diasporic immigration, and the ongoing struggles of Black communities in the US South in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many Indians in the 1980s moved to the South, amid the paradoxical and strange confluence of elite educated immigrants, the cruel movement of low-class immigrant labor in a time of industrial decline, and war and refugee crises.1
I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, four hours from Biloxi, Mississippi, to a single mother who moved there with my older brother, then aged three. My mother recalls our trip in the mid-1980s to Biloxi from Shreveport as the one time in her life that she wore shorts, exposing her legs.
My mother gained access to the US via new immigration laws seeking skilled workers after 1965. We were the direct beneficiaries of a civil rights movement that also pushed for immigration reforms and the end of immigration laws built on Asian exclusion. A Hindu Brahman by birth, she had caste privilege and had excelled in her education. Such privileges and skills permitted her to enter the US and obtain a student visa. Yet her migration is a story less often told. She was seeking refuge from intimate violence rather than pursuing the American dream. She soon found herself in the US with little sense of a dream and no social safety net, alone with two kids, with broken English and no resources.
My mother was outcast from her family when she tried to escape a marriage characterized by brutality and violence. This was 1980 Calcutta, when there were essentially no laws against domestic violence, no formal claims to be made by women for protection from the state. Those circumstances would change rapidly over the course of the 1980s, thanks to feminist mobilization. Yet the reality was that, even as feminists fought to pass laws to address the most extreme forms of domestic violence, many women like my mother had little recourse to justice or realistic avenues to escape life-threatening domestic abuse.2
In Louisiana she converted to Christianity in a nondenominational church. She was introduced to the church community by women who gave us money and canned goods, offered rides in their Buicks and Chevrolet Impalas, and taught my mother Southern cooking. These were the quotidian intimacies of tastes spanning the Bay of Bengal to the Bayou, the kindnesses offered to us primarily by Black communities in the South. My mother often remarks in particular on the kindness of Ms. Faye, the Jehovah’s Witness who taught her how to access WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Benefits for Women, Infants, and Children) benefits to feed us—benefits denied to thousands of immigrants under the Trump administration and still under threat today. Throughout my childhood, my mother cooked her gumbo “Indian style.” People offered solidarity despite differences, language barriers, and collective proximity to deprivation.
There is a photo of my mother smiling in a tiny church in Shreveport, Louisiana, stunning in a crisp white sari. There are ribbons flowing in her jet black, ankle-length hair, loose and unbound. The wild, cascading curls extend down her back, just like Mina’s mane.
My mother would often say that in Christianity, she found a principle that was unavailable for Hindu women outcast like her: forgiveness. Her experience of the Indian diaspora in America stood in stark contrast to the provisional acceptance she felt with the local Black community. In the Indian gatherings, she was marked by her divorce, her lack of economic mobility, and our status as a broken, poor family. Indian men would leer at her, while wives would resent her presence and whisper to each other. Perhaps we were technically no longer Hindu; nevertheless, my mother’s conversion offered little protection from the stringent policing of social and sexual norms in the conservative Hindu diaspora. There was also widespread anti-Black racism. Membership in the “Indian community” came with unspoken rules of propriety and exclusion.
People experience many forms of displacement in a lifetime, from place, people, and family. And like Mississippi Masala’s Mina, my mother—crushed under the stifling social judgment and cruel racism of the diasporic South—found it so unbearable that we finally left.
Here and There
We Indians, allegedly, are neither here nor there. At least, that is often the excuse that Indian diasporic communities use, so as to not confront Asian American participation in racial hierarchies of domination here in the US.
When Mina’s relatives find her in bed with Demetrius, both are arrested. But he, as a Black man, suffers material consequences that obliterate his livelihood. His carpet-cleaning business in local motels owned by white and Indian people, which he spent years building—despite impossible racism—suffers an insuperable blow. The film makes clear the historical failures and contemporary stakes of coalition. The hotel scene of racial coalition is played for laughs. After all, despite the Indian motel owner’s earlier proclamation that “all us people of color must stick together,” there is clearly not much solidarity.
Indeed, Indians at points created a strategic alliance with white supremacy, under the fictions of bootstraps, upward mobility, and the paradoxical dreams of American achievement. Indian migration is also a longer history of the dispossession of Black and Indigenous people, which made possible the massive wealth amassed by Indian diasporic communities in North America from the 1960s onward.3 Indian Americans attained property ownership through an alliance with white supremacists in places like Shreveport, Greenwood, and Biloxi, and perpetuated that supremacist vision (see, for example, Bobby Jindal).
In Desis Divided (2016), Sangay Mishra reveals how racial solidarity has not always been achieved across minoritized communities, despite the dreams of early South Asian activists who saw, in opposition to racial domination, possible community alliances for people of color.4 Newly migrated Indians entered a racialized system of property ownership of houses and businesses, like motels, that allowed them to enrich themselves. These property owners sent remittances back to family in India throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But they also used their wealth to establish a new political terrain of diasporic Hindutva, which sustained an exclusionary and transnational politics of Hindu supremacy in India. Diasporic wealth was forged through white-proximate property regimes, albeit not without profound resistance, xenophobia, and anti-Indian racism from white owners.
Hindu supremacy and deeply violent antidemocratic laws have been sustained through the remittances of the diaspora. As Christophe Jaffrelot reveals in Modi’s India (2021), with the formal incorporation of the right-wing Hindutva organizations HSS and VHP in the US in the late 1980s, funds earned through Indian business ownership and professional wealth in the US were infused into Hindu right-wing movements in India.5 These funds were essential to the rise of the VHP in the early 1990s and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Indeed, this Indian American funding has been essential to the sustenance of the Hindu right for decades.
This material history is the complicated legacy of diasporic nationalism and the collusion of Indians with white and Hindu supremacy. Indeed, both were most visible recently in the Indian flag flown during the capital insurrection in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.
The work against supremacy for Indian Americans is to reimagine politics for the twenty-first century through a direct engagement with the material effects of the biases held by diasporic communities. According to a recent Pew research study, the South Asian diaspora as a whole recently surpassed others to become the largest Asian American demographic group in the US. Indian Americans are now second to Chinese Americans in number and are among the wealthiest Asian Americans, receiving a mean annual income of $119,000 (as compared to other migrant communities who are South Asian, including the Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Burmese diasporas, who are among the most impoverished groups across racial lines in the US).
Optimism for the young love of Mina and Demetrius is juxtaposed with the material and social realities documented in Mississippi Masala, which continue today: the social and state control of women’s sexuality, particularly that of immigrant women and women of color; the pervasive presence of racist policing in everyday life; the uneasy and fragile alliances of minorities with white supremacy. The film is not simply a fictional love story or comedy of racial misapprehension. It is also a nuanced document that testifies to a time of rapid South Asian influx into the US and the rise of Indian American property ownership. Mississippi Masala imagines a Hindu diaspora in the South facing immense racism and xenophobia. It juxtaposes their insular desires for a romantic vision of home to the cruel realities of social strictures and exclusions.
Theirs was a diasporic nostalgia, which has shaped the politics of an earlier generation who felt they were neither here nor there. Thirty years later, we might return to these stories: to radically reimagine a politics of alliance against authoritarianism, a located politics against supremacy, a different way of being here and there.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- In the recent landmark volume Our Stories: An Introduction South Asian America, we learn of the diverse lives of South Asian America through archival accounts, oral histories, and first-person narratives that span more than a century of South Asian migration to the US. South Asian American Digital Archive, Our Stories: An Introduction to South Asian America (SAADA, 2021). The immigrants of the 1980s were not the first migrants from South Asia to places in the US South, but followed half a century after Bengali and Afghan entrepreneurs who disembarked in ports like New Orleans, as Vivek Bald narrates in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard University Press, 2013). ↩
- Srimati Basu addresses these vexed problems of marriage as bodily ownership in her chapter on “sexual property,” in The Trouble with Marriage: Feminists Confront Law and Violence in India (University of California Press, 2015). ↩
- Nishant Upadhyay, “Making of ‘Model’ South Asians on the Tar Sands: Intersections of Race, Caste, and Indigeneity,” Journal of the Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 5, no. 1–2 (2019), pp. 152–73. ↩
- Sangay Mishra, Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). ↩
- Christophe Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2021). ↩