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Race, Identity and Gender in Mississippi Masala

The opening credits of Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala tell the story of how Jay, his wife Kinnu, and their daughter Mina, leave Uganda in 1972 as a result of Idi Amin’s order that all Indians must be expelled from the country. The film picks up, after the credits, some 20 years later in Greenwood, Mississippi where the family now lives in a motel owned by relatives. In the first scenes set in Greenwood, Mina (Sarita Choudhury), now a grown young woman, carelessly rear-ends Demetrius’s service van. Demetrius (Denzel Washington) is a young African-American man with his own carpet cleaning business.

When Mina approaches him to get his contact information for insurance purposes, his distracted gaze is turned away from Mina and towards his van and the police officer on the scene. The contrivances of the plot to throw these would-be lovers together become clear when, later that same day, they bump into each other again on the dance floor of a club where they both happen to be. This is a fitting start to the love story that forms the narrative heart of the film, which is concerned rather directly with what happens when people of different racial and cultural identities collide.

The romance between an African-American man and a migrant woman of Indian descent, both arguably caught in the after effects of colonialism in India and in America, allows us to examine how these two identities inform each other. This theme is self-consciously referred to in the film when Demetrius’s brother draws a parallel between Africans who were brought to America to provide labor through slavery and the circumstances of Indians who were brought by the British to provide labor in their African colonies.

The film plays with the points of contact and collision in these stories about the movements of people in a way that deserves analysis. This discussion is not limited to the racial differences between the two lovers, but also includes attention to the way the question of gender difference is inextricably tied to racial identity. The film, as a visual medium, is particularly well suited to a discussion of racial identity because it stages a visual juxtaposition of US Indians and African-Americans on the screen against an index of being “not-white.

” This position of being “not white,” however, is not necessarily a firm ground for coalition. During the course of the film, the position of being “not-white” is more often an occasion to foreground the differences between people that share this position. The film’s narrative exploits this “non-whiteness” to show how members of a particular racial group manipulate it to create coalitions across racial differences for particular ends. This occurs, for example, when Kanti, whose friend’s car was damaged in the accident, attempts to befriend Demetrius in order to make sure his friend is not sued.

The effort at this new friendship is not an end in itself, but a means to protect and consolidate property and capital within racial groups, not across them. The conservation of capital and wealth takes precedence over cross-cultural coalitions until, as this paper will argue is the case in the romance between Mina and Demetrius, such coalitions provide a material benefit as well. Race, Gender and Identity The commentators assume that “Indian” identity exists as a pre-given, already understood category that is either helped or hindered by its representation in the film (Desai).

The sequence of scenes that surround the consummation of Mina and Demetrius’ relationship, which occurs when the two steal away to Biloxi for the weekend, trouble such assumptions productively by introducing the question of history. The sequence expands the context of the issues already raised—the collusion between racial and gender identity, the protection of capital—into a broader engagement with the discourse of migrancy. In doing so, it moves away from an emphasis on individuals who are independent of history towards an attempt to account for the traces of shared history in the film (Berry).

Erika Andersen’s review reveals the racial assumptions that produce her critical investment in the film. Her assessment of Nair as a filmmaker is particularly telling: “One of the issues that filmmakers of color face is the depiction of their own ethnic group in their work. I found many of the characters in Masala to be negative and satirized. The film portrays two kinds of Indians— Mina and her family, who are portrayed genuinely and sympathetically, and the rest of the Indian community, who are portrayed as caricatures” (25).

Her disappointment with Nair as an insensitive native of sorts betrays more about Andersen’s own assumptions—that “Indians” should know better, that the community from which Nair comes and the one that is represented are identifiable as part of some whole “Indian” community that “really exists”—than it does about the film or Nair as a filmmaker. Andersen has certain expectations of what real Indians are and how they should behave, and Nair and Nair’s film have disappointed these.

The love scene that begins the sequence establishes the centrality of visuality in Mina and Demetrius’ representation by emphasizing how the camera’s gaze produces their identities. As the two fall asleep, Mina experiences a flashback to her childhood in Uganda. Their physical togetherness is an apt figure for the intertwined nature of their histories, which, is an important site of analysis for this sequence of scenes. Mina’s flashback explicitly recalls her specific migrant identity through the use of documentary footage of Idi-Amin espousing his virulent hatred of Indians in Uganda.

When Anil, Kanti and Pontiac, who are also visiting Biloxi, see Demetrius’ service van parked outside a motel room, Pontiac is convinced that Mina is inside with him. Anil barges in, followed by his friends. The language used when he barges in, however, recalls that heard in the flashback, which forces a productive comparison between the scenes. As the camera pans slowly down their bodies, it shows a tangle of dark limbs moving slowly over each other against a background of white sheets.

The contrast between their skin and sheets is striking, so that what is emphasized visually is their physical, and by extension racial, non-whiteness. As the camera continues to move over their bodies, it is difficult to decide from moment to moment which limbs belong to whom. The camera gaze further emphasizes their non-whiteness by catching the way the light reflects off their shiny skin. The combination of a confusion of limbs against white sheets and the shiny glare on all of them tends to exoticize both of the lovers together as an undifferentiated, inchoate jumble of non-whiteness.

Such non-whiteness, however, is not a shared sameness or similarity. This would explain why the impetus to blur the two lovers together vies for attention with other visual cues that, nevertheless, also aim to distinguish them. When the camera reveals the two lovers, the first image on the screen is Mina’s hand, with her Indian ring prominently displayed, draped languidly over Demetrius’ forearm. Moments later, the camera lingers on Mina’s brightly embroidered Indian shawl. These objects have the effect of conferring on Mina the status of “coming from India. “

She, however, does not come from India but only looks like she might have done so. While there is no dialog in this scene, there is music and, significantly, it is African music, which unifies both characters through a common reference to Africa. While the Indian objects seem specifically attached to Mina (they are objects that go on her body), the music is more ambient and diffuses into the image of the two of them together. The fact that the lovers are so decidedly intertwined invites an analysis as to how the idea of “India” and “Africa” affect both of the bodies displayed on the screen.

Mina’s flashback to Uganda, which occurs as the lovers are falling asleep, begins the process of articulating the trace of history in the representation of their romance. The sequence begins with one of Mina’s childhood birthday parties. The women are all dressed in Indian saris and Mina, as a little girl, also wears an Indian outfit. The image of Mina in the company of all the sari-clad women suggests that since women have a specific cultural value in reproducing cultural identity through the biology and culture of motherhood, such reproduction is figured in the film through the choice of costume.

“This is not to suggest that Mina’s self-identification as masala is not a political act. Masala has become a powerful and popular metaphor of the South Asian diaspora to describe hybrid identities and subjectivities” (Desai 90). Significantly, the choice to display the reproduction of cultural identity in the moment of a birthday party, which is a domestic routine managed by women, serves to demonstrate the way identity is socialized for the individual, here Mina.

That such socialization was successful is substantiated by the fact of Mina’s flashback; the party did become something memorable, something that she carries with her in the present and is a part of who she is. The cultural value attributed to women is specifically troubled in the course of the flashback. As the party progresses in the foreground, a television is on in the background. Soon enough, the camera simply cuts to what is showing on the television. It is documentary footage of Idi Amin. The image of Amin is in black and white and shows just his head and shoulders.

He is wearing a military uniform and angrily pronounces the following: Asians built the railroad. The railroad is finished. They must pack up and go. Asians have milked the cow, but they have not fed it. Africans are poor, Asians are rich. The Asians are sabotaging the economy of Uganda. They have refused to let their daughters marry Africans. He begins by referring to the reason that the British brought Indians (Amin calls them Asians) from one colony to another and emphasizes their history as laborers.

This history, however, is incommensurate with present economic conditions in which the Indians are enjoying too high a level of economic success. The allusion to the cow, furthermore, is a thinly veiled racist remark that depends for its rhetorical effect on the association of Indians with their assumed reverence for cows. It is the last line, however, that is most disturbing. In terms of the historical record, there is evidence that Indians, in collusion with the British who ruled Uganda as a colony, were complicit in the economic exploitation of black Ugandans.

As Binita Mehta reminds us: The British used Indians first as soldiers, then as labor to help build the Ugandan railway. The railway opened up remote areas of the country, paving the way for more Indian immigrants, who arrived in large numbers, opened shops, and soon controlled most of the retail trade in Uganda. Although the British encouraged the economic prosperity of Indians, real power in Uganda remained in British hands. As the Indians prospered, however, the black African population was relegated to the bottom rung of society…

As the business class in Uganda, Indians controlled most of the wealth, excluding Africans from the economic structure. (187) Mehta’s essay offers an interpretation that depends on a sensitive reading of Mina’s family as a particular instance of the migrant experience that exposes the contradictions of such a position. Whatever the facts of economic exploitation in the relations between Indians and black Ugandans might have been, Amin’s propaganda sought to guarantee their truth through recourse to sexual politics.

According to this conflated logic, the proof of economic exploitation is to be found in marriage practices. If women are privileged cultural markers, then the presence or absence of access to them through marriage, according to Amin’s disturbing logic, reveals the degree to which economic wealth has been shared. In such an equation, according to Amin, since Indian daughters have not been shared, economic wealth has not been shared fairly either. The question that remains, however, is who is it that has not shared the Indian women living in Uganda? The question is one that is, as well, familiar.

The figure of the Indian woman that Amin invokes in his rhetoric is defined by access to her. In Aziz’s nationalist rhetoric, the power gained by manipulating access to the Indian woman was a way to consolidate power between the men who controlled the nationalist project. What Amin protests is the success with which Indian men have controlled access to Indian women, which in the Ugandan context has meant that they “do not let their daughters marry Africans. ” Indian women serve as boundary markers. Amin’s rhetoric clearly points to its significance as the mark of entry into a culture.

Accordingly, the absence of sex—or sexual exchange—signifies a stubborn refusal at assimilation. The proximity of Idi-Amin’s line that Indians “have refused to let their daughters marry Africans” to Anil’s declaration that Demetrius had “better leave our women alone” deserves attention, since what comes between the delivery of each is the image of Mina and Demetrius together. In both cases, the sexual propriety of Indian women is represented to guarantee the racial and economic separation between Africans and Indians in Uganda as well as between Indian immigrants and African-Americans in the US.

In the case of Indians in Uganda, the documentary realism of Amin making his pronouncements about marriage practices is used to substitute for any representation against which the truth or falsity of Amin’s claims could be measured in that scene. Anil’s declaration, in its proximity to Amin’s claims, represents the kind of proprietary attitude that Idi Amin criticizes and mobilizes for his own propaganda. The temptation here is to conflate the representation of Indians in Uganda with Indians in the US. A further temptation is to conflate the representation of African-Americans with African Ugandans.

By this we mean, specifically, the way that Amin’s claim that “They do not let their daughters marry Africans” is answered by the image of Mina and Demetrius together. Here, an African-American is with an Indian daughter, although it is not by the permission of her male relatives who claim their family honor depends on her. The problem with the conflation between Africans who did not have access to indian women, as constructed by Amin, and the image of Demetrius on the screen, is that any claim for Demetrius’ African identity must be extrapolated from his identification with being an African-American.

The erasure of “American” in this case is also an erasure of the history of forced diaspora through slavery. Such a conflation, furthermore, does not problematize the kind of stability that African-American identity must be assumed to have in such a construction. Structurally, a group identity is inferred from the representation of an individual. This conflation is similar to the way that Mina is made to mark the group boundaries of Indians in general when Anil calls her one of “our women. ” As Jigna Desai discusses, “Demetrius and Mina’s relationship suggests U.

S. exceptionalism by locating the United States, rather than Uganda or elsewhere, as the site for overcoming national identities, a place in which movement is not bounded by national narratives” (92). In the aftermath of the lovers being found together, the film chronicles a series of vignettes showing the responses of both the Indian and African-American communities in Greenwood. There is an image of Demetrius’ ex-wife on the phone declaring that she doesn’t “see no shortage of black women in Greenwood.

” Her remark shows an attempt to police African-American identity through the boundaries that African-American women are made to mark. Demetrius’ relationship with a woman outside of the group shows that he has violated that boundary. That this declaration comes not from a man but from a woman also suggests the degree to which such boundary marking is internalized even by women who recognize its violation, but not the way it positions the burden of community on them. Dexter, Demetrius’ brother, tells him that people have been saying, “you think you got a white chick.

” This is followed closely by an image of a white motel owner on the phone, presumably with someone from Mina’s family, asking with apparent glee, “You all having nigger problems? ” This pairing of lines constructs Indian identity in the US as dependent upon identification with the dominant white culture through a mutual racism directed against African-Americans. Disturbingly, this is an instance of securing an American identity through the position, shared between Indians in the US and whites, of both being “not-black.

” This rather bleak response shows that when Mina and Demetrius finally elope, it is less accurate to describe them as abandoning their communities than it is to recognize that the lovers have been rejected by them. As Jigna Desai comments, “the film suggests that Mina’s relationship with Demetrius is part of a process of remembering, restructuring, and healing from the colonial legacy of racial hierarchy experienced through gender” (83). The closing credits, somewhat jarringly, show Mina and Demetrius kissing in the sunshine in traditional Indian and African clothes respectively.

This final image is confusing given the terms of their departure, but less so when considered in light of one other echo in the film that we have not yet discussed. Mina’s whole flashback is organized around her childhood birthday party. Early on in their relationship, Mina and Demetrius attend his grandfather’s birthday party. When Demetrius introduces her to his family he tells them, “This is Mina, she’s from India and England and Africa. ” The list notably begins with India but does not include the US or some statement that she is from here as well.

Demetrius’ grandfather repeatedly asks Mina where she is from and she replies three times that she is from India. The irony is that she also tells them she has never been to India. In this context, when she is asked where she is from it is in the context of explaining the way she looks, and the only answer that satisfies this is “India. ” Here, the conferral of Indian identity is a response to the question of those who ask where she is from. Her desire to answer shows her participation in such a conferral. When the party guests are all seated around the table, the conversation that ensues, however, shows a deliberate negotiation of identity:

Dexter begins by asking, “What’s Africa like, it’s not like Shaka Zulu is it? ” “Some places. We used to live in Kampala. ” “Isn’t that where Amin is from? ” adds Demetrius. His father continues, “Young lady, how come they got Indians in Africa? ” At this point Mina explains how the British had brought them there to help build the railroad and the assembled company listens attentively until Dexter adds that this is “like slaves. ” He refers to the structural similarity between Indians who were brought to Africa and Africans who were brought to America to provide labor.

Strikingly, what is suggested here is that a labor shortage in Africa that resulted in the influx of Indians may have had some connection with a slave past that helped to empty the continent of people. Histories crisscross here in a manner that recalls past violence. Conclusion The circulation of people caused by British colonialism ties the histories of India and Africa together in Mississippi Masala within the context of US imperialism. Robert Lee characterizes this as “a Utopian resolution which can only be imagined on the basis of a class struggle through a materialist engagement with history” (230).

The relationships between Dexter and Mina, and Mina and Demetrius, and Mina and her parents, to name a few, demonstrate the far-reaching implications of migrancy. When Dexter persists in his questioning and wants to know why Mina and her family left Africa, Demetrius is quick to tell him to “let her eat. ” Until this point, what Dexter’s questioning has revealed is the parallel between the circumstances of African-Americans and Indians that aids in a bond being formed between Demetrius’s family and Mina.

The revelation of why Mina’s family had to leave Uganda, however, would call such a parallel and, by implication, equal representation into question by foregrounding the hierarchical relationship between Ugandans, with whom Dexter however imperfectly identifies, and the African Indians. It was, as Demetrius’s mention of Amin reminds us, an Ugandan African who called for the expulsion of Indians from the country. Works Cited Andersen, Erika S. Review of Mississippi Masala directed by Mira Nair. Film Quarterly, 46. 4 (Summer 1993): 23-6. Berry, Cecelie S. Review of Mississippi Masala directed by Mira Nair.

Cineaste. 19. 2-3 (1992): 66-7. Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge, 2004. Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. (Asian American History and Culture. ) Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999 Mehta, Binita. “Emigrants Twice Displaced: Race, Color, and Identity in Mira Nair*s Mississippi Masala” In Between the Lines: South Asians and Postcoloniality. Eds. Deepika Bahri and Mary Vasudeva. Temple UP: Philadelphia, 1996. Nair, Mira. Mississippi Masala. 1991, distributed by Palace Pictures.

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