Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Masala: “Creating something new out of old ingredients?”

Lots of interesting things going on in Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” First of all, I had forgotten how long ago the 90’s really were: the haircuts, the fashion, the music, like whoa... The race relations between blacks and Indians in the film were complex. In both Uganda and Mississippi, Meena’s family faces tense relations with blacks. At the beginning of the film her family is forced to flee Uganda because of the rise of nationalism in the country being told that “Africa is Africans, black Africans.” The deep seeded animosities between blacks and Indians accompany Meena’s family to Mississippi where Meena and Demetrius’ interracial relationship explodes into a feud between their families. Despite the potential for solidarity and unity between the two groups as non-white people of color, the Indians in the film are still seen as foreigners and out-of-place by both the black and white communities in Mississippi.

Throughout the film I found myself thinking about the relationship between South Asians and Asian Americans. One of the things that struck me on our first day of Asian Am Pop Culture class is the absence of South Asians in our class, which got me thinking about whether South Asians embrace Asian American as part of their identity or if Asian American is a distinctly East and Southeast Asian identity. This question extends into our readings and movies as well, in which South Asians have been mostly absent. This invisibility of SA in curriculum is concerning, but it is also a reflection of their representation of South Asians in mainstream culture. The only popular SA actor that comes to mind is Kal Penn from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” The invisibility of South Asian identity in the United States was also present in the film. Even after he learns that Meena is Indian, Tyrone continues to believe that she is Demetrius’ “Mexican girlfriend.” One of the white character in the film complains to his friend that the “Indians” should be sent “back to the reservation,” confusing Meena’s family for American Indians. With the huge growth in the Indian/South Asian film industry (Bollywood), the invisibility of South Asians in our popular culture should change as Bollywood fosters a larger ethnic Indian cinema.

The one part of the movie that seemed ingenuine to me was the relationship between Meena and Demetrius. I just didn’t find their relationship believable. Maybe I have a narrow view/high expectations of romance in film, but I felt that there was a huge disconnect between the “love at first site” and the “we are going to leave Mississippi together” elope. I recognize that Nair was trying to do a lot with this relationship using it as the focal point for the tensions between the black and Indian communities, but considering how the brevity of their relationship AND the fact that Demetrius was just using Meena to get back at his ex-girlfriend Alicia. I guess I would have to side with her parents on this one: What was Meena thinking!?!?

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