Monday, April 7, 2008

Mississippi Masala

I was rather disappointed by Mississippi Masala because although I agree with Mehta that the film portrays race relations and identity in an nontraditional fashion, I felt that the characters were merely superficial signifiers of Nair's agenda, namely that tradition is about "knowing what to eat and what to leave on your plate." This message was only achievable by flattening out the two main characters by emphasizing their rather inexplicable attraction towards each other and downplaying the ties and responsibilities they have to their respective families.

I thought that the most nuanced and developed character in the film was Mina's father, Jay. Through his flashbacks, his dogged struggle to regain his property, and his reactions to Mina's relationship with Demetrius, we observe how his prior history and circumstances mutually reinforce a specific set of attitudes, fears, and yearnings. For example, Jay's perceived betrayal by Okelo leads to his belief that in the end what matters is the color of one's skin and that people "stick to their kind," which in turn incites him to disapprove of Mina's relationship with Demetrius. However, Okelo's betrayal interestingly does not lead Jay to believe that his homeland has betrayed him, perhaps because he never associated being Ugandan with being a black African.

It is interesting to think about how Mina identifies herself as Indian although she has never been to India. Although Dexter states that Mina is like blacks because like her, they have never been to Africa, I would not suggest that this is a close parallel. Blacks are conscious of Africa as a place from which they were forcibly removed and with which they guard few direct cultural ties. Mina is Indian because the people she identifies with are Indian, not because she nostalgically considers it her homeland. In addition, her identification of being Indian with a specific culture rather than an idea about place and belonging contrast with her fathers association of being Ugandan because that is where he grew up--“I’ve always been Ugandan first and Indian second.”

Also, the film does nicely complement the other two films we have watch, Better Luck Tomorrow and Monkey Dance because the question of education is important in how these individuals approach the choices in their lives. For the characters in BLT, the predesignated path to higher education constitutes a stifling psychic oppression, while for the Cambodian students in Lowell, education is a means of escaping economic oppression. However, in Mississippi Masala, Mina is unable to attend college because her family is unable to afford it, she does not seem particularly bothered with her lack of higher education, although she does state at one point that she was unhappy. Instead, she looks outside of herself in order to overcome her circumstances. Mehta seems to suggest that transcending racial boundaries either trumps financial security or will lead to prosperity, perhaps by joining forces and sticking it to the white man.

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