Monday, February 07, 2011

Mississippi Masala and telling the difference between Indian characters.

Some of you might remember this film by Mira Nair from the early '90s. I keep coming back to it because, despite the lack of chemistry between Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, it is a beautiful film. I have taught it before, and I am teaching it again after several years, and so I have been doing a little research on the history of Asian Indians in Uganda and in the American South. In the process, I found a couple of interviews with Mira Nair, and that made me interested in seeing what some of the actors thought of the film - especially given the lack of chemistry I mentioned above.

But I ended up finding something extraordinary, something altogether else. I found a couple of reviews by people who seem to have no clue how to differentiate between the characters of the film - and this is interesting given that there are no main white characters. Hmm.

What is particularly disappointing about this inability to tell one Indian character from another is that Roger Ebert is one of the reviewers. He writes: "The story continues in Greenwood, Miss., where the lawyer and his wife (Roshan Seth and Sharmila Tagore) own a shabby roadside motel." Um, no. It is made quite clear at several points in the film that the hotel is owned by their extended family who are doing them a favor by allowing them to live there. The lawyer and his wife, in fact, own a liquor store. That is also repeated several times. Ebert writes: "Within her own community, she [Mina] is considered too dark-skinned to make a desirable wife (her mother explains that if you want to catch a husband, you can be dark and rich, or light and poor, but not dark and poor)." In fact, it is not Mina's mother who says this, but the filmmaker herself, Mira Nair, in a cameo. Nair has three or four lines in the film; Sharmila Tagore, who plays Mina's mother, appears quite frequently and looks nothing like Nair. In fact, the two characters are at odds, with Nair's character saying nasty things about Tagore's character and Mina.

Surprisingly, The New York Times, too, seemed to have trouble telling the characters apart. Vincent Canby writes: "Near the beginning of Mira Nair's sweetly pungent new comedy, "Mississippi Masala," Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is driving a large, borrowed American automobile down a highway near Greenwood, Miss., arguing with her mother, who sits imperially in the back. Mina drives with the hapless self-assurance of someone who doesn't often get behind a wheel." In fact, it is not Mina's mother in the backseat but an aunt or other relative who does not speak English. Mina's mother speaks English for the entirety of the film, and also looks nothing like the actress in this scene.

Now, I admit that I have seen this film a minimum of 10-12 times, but even so - it makes me wonder why these reviewers can't tell the difference between these actors. I don't think it's simply that they weren't paying attention. I think it comes from not having had to make these kinds of distinctions.

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