Film by Mira Nair, 1991
Full Citation: Anderson, Erika Surat. Film Review of Mississippi Masala by Mira Nair; Michael Nozik. Film Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 23-26.
Anderson supports Nair's decision to keep white characters as peripheral to the story, however criticizes the lack of historical context the film provides about histories of British colonialism 25
"It's not mentioned that Indians had become the merchant class in Uganda, and as such were taken to be the agents of oppression, becoming targets of the Amin government. The less visible but more powerful force in Africa, the British, are not mentioned at all, nor is the legacy of their divide-and-conquer tactics." 25, I understand Anderson's point, and agree that more context could have aided the film. However, I think that the choice to keep white characters as peripheral and British colonialism as primarily invisible was intentional and powerful in its own way. This 'invisibility' of European domination is at work in an intereststing parallel between post-colonial Uganda and 1990s American south. As the film attests, Mississippi remains a highly racialized and segregated space, a constant reminder of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. White bodies do not need to be present in order to impose racial boundaries on the brown and black bodies that populate the film. Just as in Uganda, the pointed absence of visible whiteness reinforces the residual power of colonialism and racial domination and perhaps gives a more realistic impression of what it means to live "post-colonially." Clearly the racial formations constructed by the British /Americans are still at work in Uganda and the American South., This point is articulated best by Seshagiri on page 185
I think that this raises an important question about Nair's positionality and the gaze directed at this film. This is a point taken up in Ballal's critique.
"I argue that the inescapable legacy of empire produces a disjuncture between the film's forward-looking politics and its ambivalent ending: Mississippi Masala illuminates but fails to transcend the geographical and historical boundaries of British Colonialism and American slavery. Ultimately, the very hybridity that Mira Nair celebrates through vibrant spectacle finds itself bereft of a "place" on empire's geographical and political map." 183
The most effective part of her analysis explains the racial formations at work in the U.S. and in memory from Uganda that conspire to Mina and Demetrius from their communities when their relationship is discovered., "In an economy where Indians have, "For the the African American community, economic success in the racially mixed public arena can signal a betrayal of one's private racial origins...[Demetrius' 'place']-invisible until its boundaries are crossed- is a cultural periphery from which Demetrius is allowed to pursue the American dream only if he poses no sexual threat to other racial groups." 190-191, I wish that Seshagiri would have gone further into the colonial roots of racialized sexuality. Moments of her analysis approach this but do not fully engage with it. On page 189 she parallels Amin's 1972 statement that Indians refuse to marry Black Ugandans with Tyrone's statement in the truck. He states emphatically "if you fall into bed with one of their daughters -- then your ass gonna swing." 189. I think that it is important to differentiate between these two legacies in order to honor the particular history of Black Americans in the United States’ South. Tyrone references the horrific history of lynching in this statement. Black men were often lynched if they were upstart successes in their community, though the white community claimed that it was for rape of a white woman. This history is important to reading the Black community’s concern about Demetrius and Mina, and also to see how Mina’s brown body, is reinscribed as white within this particular geography and moment. While I agree with some of the comparisons that Seshagiri makes between the Indian-Ugandan and African-American communities’ experiences of migration and national liminality. However, I fear that the American south and Greenwood, MI specifically are not analyzed as meaningful places in Mississippi Masala. While they may be landscapes also characterized by diaspora and estrangement, the Black community is also deeply rooted in the land and have their distinct narrative of life in white America within which another racial Other may be contextualized.
Full Citation: Ballal, Prajeeti Punja. Illiberal Masala: The Diasporic Distortions of Mira Nair and Dinesh D’Souza. Weber the Contemporary West, Winter 1998, Volume 15.1.
It is within this context, that Ballal locates Nair within the academic/physical "West," whose education, privilege and access are residual benefits from the colonial system. Mohanty distinguishes between racialized waves of South Asian immigration, from the "yellow peril" of 1924-1942 to the "model minority" of 1943-1960s. (2), This is related to the questions that Anderson pose at the end of her piece about the rights and abilities of Nair to represent her own community and the implications of that when a wider/whiter audience is concerned.
Ballal locates Nair within the academic/physical and psychic West and therefore charges her work with reinscribing colonial practices of seeing the west as "progressive/modern" and the non-West as "backward/traditional." Ballal argues this in specific regard to the representation of Mina, who is at the mercy of her "traditional Indian family/patriarchy" that wants to arrange a marriage. This view of limited freedom allows the United States/West as the location at which Mina can escape and really be "free", "This representation of Third World women is parallel to strategies employed by colonial discourse... In Mississippi Masala, the body of the young, female hero is used to cross racial boundaries within a discourse of eroticization. Mina is decked in the flaming oranges, reds and golds of titillating, "ethnic" costume and comportment...The film thus serves the exigencies of the Euro-American marketplace where the exotic hero becomes the object of a Western gaze." (4), I think that this is an extremely important aspect of the film that is easily lost to white audiences. Mina is very sexualized in this film, and I agree with Ballal that it is within the discourse of sexuality that she can move fluidly through differently racialized spaces. This is a subtlety that Anderson does not pick up on in her critique. We see this in the first scene of Mina in Greenwood, when she flips up her hair in the grocery store. It is also true in the club scene, where it is through sensual movement that Mina is welcomed and desired in the Black space. Seshagiri sees the use of bright colors against brown skin as a celebration of brown skin and of mixed love(186-187). I think that it is important to see that both celebration and exotification can be happening simultaneously in this film. This is a consequence of Nair's positionality, as Ballal points out, and also of the dominant white gaze of mainstream America., Colonial representations of the "native" male body as effeminized can also be seen in Mississippi Masala through the character of Anil and Ponte who are impotant/sexually deprived/disfunctional (5), What I think is missing from Ballal's critique is an examination of the exoticization / sexualization of Demetrius and the Black male body in relation to Mina/ Indian women in the film. The motel scene, when Anil bursts in is clearly playing on Black penis envy, a phenomenon that can also be traced to colonial formations of race and sex and to the class conflicts constructed between Indian and Black communities in both Greenwood and Uganda. See Seshagiri for more on this (189)
Full Citation: Koshy, Susan. The Fiction of Asian American Literature. The Yale Journal of Criticism 9. (1996) 315-346
"The potential for reinscription of ethnic codings is taken up in a comic mode in Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala. Her story revises prototypical narratives of ethnic formation, and the rubric "Asian American" strains to contain the displacements through which ethnicity travels...India as the space of 'origin' never materializes as locale in the film...If the film unsettles or ideas about the category Asian American, it also ironizes the confidence with which we read the category African American by offering us an-other African American story set in Mississippi." 23, This analysis illuminates the hybridity in the narrative of Mississipi Masala, beyond the simplistic reading of hybridity within the "miscegenation anxiety" at work in the film. As Koshy demonstrates inexplicity, the hybridity at work does not erase boundaries of ethnicity/race/origin/nationality to appease the inclusive impuse of multiculturalism or as an easy solution to the conflict of the story. In this case, hybridity stands to complicate borders and allow characters to be imagined differently. This is an interpretation that is interesting to read alongside Seshagiri., How does this interact with Ballal's critique? How can we reconcile their perspectives? This is an example of critiques from distinct disciplines that are not in dialogue in these pieces. How does post-colonial theory fit into Koshy's conception of Asian American Studies? In what way is she constructing borders to the field even while she is interrogating them? How do South Asians fit/not fit within her exploration?
Full Citation: Shukla, Sandhya. Locations for South Asian Diasporas. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 30, (2001), pp. 551-572
A main point of Shukla's article is the processes of narrative production for South Asians in diaspora. She highlights the importance of imaginaries of nation and home and the limits of geography-bounded identification. 553
Shukla from an anthropological perspective is also interested in the ways that different disciplines produce knowledge about South Asian "difference" and cautions against the essentializing potential of categorization. She points to three other forms of narrative production that may speak to/for the experience of South Asians and may also come into conflict with their own understandings of their experiences. Each of these structures contributes to analyzing South Asian subjectivities. Shukla objects, however, to the lack of dialogue between the disciplines., postcolonialism, "The realities, memories, and rebuttals to British colonialism have profoundly affected diasporic peoples and their cultures. In idea and deed, colonialism, then, has created a language in which to understand the development of nationalisms, at home and abroad...these fields also contain questions related to genre and textuality that illuminate the imaginaries central to South Asian diasporic cultural production and experience." 553, In this passage, Shukla indicates that British colonialism continues to influence the ways that nation is conceived by post-colonial subjects. How then could this explain Ballal's argument that Nair is rehashing colonial representations in Mississippi Masala ? Nair is also a post-colonial subject who within some labels would be combined with other South Asian diasporic peoples despite the vast differences in their experiences of migration, in terms of class, nation and gender especially. Here we see the conflicts arising between different disciplinary approaches to the same constructed identity., "Imaginaries" of home and nation, and therefore the construction of a South Asian diasporic "self" are also central to the narrative structure of Mississippi Masala. The audience comes to understand the emotional and intellectual processes of Mina's family through their memories of Uganda., Mina flashes back to her birthdays as a child and the experience of being told to leave "home" as she experiences sex with Demetrius for the first time. This indicates a sense of anxiety residing in Mina about being forced to leave this next home she has found, which she indicates is within the heart/body of Demetrius., We watch Jay try to sort through his feelings about Mina and Demetrius by reflecting on his relationship with Okelo. It is implied that he has not yet recovered from his feelings of betrayal by Okelo, and symbolically the nation of Uganda. Perhaps his sense of betrayal from "home" has become reflected on the black body of Demetrius, now a symbol of his own daughter's embrace of America(n) as "home." (see Seshagiri's analysis of these memories), racial and ethnic formation, "Historically, and more globally, South Asian diasporas can be linked to crucial shifts in the development of capitalism and explanatory discourses of difference; in both the political and military domination of the eastern and southern hemisphere, as well as in the insertion of their peoples into European and North American systems of labor, can be found the origins of the racialization of South Asian diasporas." 554, We see this angle in Mississippi Masala through the conflict that arises between the merchant Indian class in Uganda and the laboring class of Black Africans, mirrored by the Indian property/business owners in Greenwood and the Black laborers. This is a narrative of racial and ethnic formation that explains one aspect of the way that Indians were racialized and treated in different spatial and temporal locations., globalization, "The juncture of two facts render South Asian diasporas analytically ripe for globalization theorists: the emergent third-world technologically based economy of India and the often crucial role that Indian migrant financers around the world play in a range of transnational capital formations." 554