In 1989, Hollywood had come calling for Mira Nair. Her debut feature film “Salaam Bombay!” premiered at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d’Or and Audience awards. The following spring, it received an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature, only the second time a film from India had been nominated.
The acclaim brought Nair some enticing directing offers. But she wasn’t interested. As demonstrated by her rich and varied career in the decades since — with beautifully realized stories that are simultaneously specific and universal, timely and timeless, like “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake” and “Queen of Katwe” — she wanted to make the films that she wanted to make.
“People would say, ‘Just make a rom-com, babe. Just go to Los Angeles, and just be one of the pack.’ But anybody can be one of the pack,” the director said in a recent interview. “What I learned from that film, which carried into ‘Mississippi Masala,’ was that I should follow my own heart, always, and do what I want to do, and do what is actually very difficult to do, and do what you think you can’t do.”
After “Salaam Bombay,” Nair had been kicking around an idea about “the hierarchy of color — what I called being brown between Black and white — which was my experience as a scholarship student at Harvard, when I first left India at 19,” she said. “I was somebody who was in between both communities and completely accessible to both, and yet invisible lines were drawn.”
She had also read about Indians living in Uganda who were brought over during British colonial rule to build the railroads. Generations of Indians lived there until 1972, when dictator Idi Amin expelled them. Through articles in the Indian diaspora newspaper India Abroad, Nair uncovered “this other strange trick of history”: Some of those Ugandan Indians had settled in Mississippi and become motel owners.
Nair and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, combined all of these ideas into “Mississippi Masala.” Released in the U.S. in early 1992, it’s a gorgeous and resplendent drama featuring off-the-charts chemistry between Mina (Sarita Choudhury) ― a young Indian immigrant woman who works at a motel in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her family settled after being expelled from Uganda ― and Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a young Black man who runs a local carpet cleaning business. Their romance creates tensions in their families and communities. (Nair plays a brief but memorable role as a gossiping auntie.)
The movie’s deep, sometimes unnervingly honest explorations of racism ― not to mention colorism, white supremacy, colonialism and displacement ― still feel groundbreaking 30 years later. A frame-by-frame restoration of the film’s stunning visuals and soundtrack, done by the Criterion Collection, is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and will be shown at various theaters around the country in the coming weeks. It will also be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 24.
A confluence of events led to the restored version, according to Nair. In 2020, the London Indian Film Festival wanted to screen the film and asked her for a print of it. The rights to “Mississippi Masala” had been sold and resold several times, and it turned out the only print was now owned by a music company in Nashville, which agreed to return the rights to Nair. She sent the print to LIFF, where it won an audience award as the festival’s most popular film.
That renewed buzz, along with the film’s 30th anniversary, got Nair thinking about how to bring “Mississippi Masala” back to the big screen. (Adding to the film’s resurgent relevance: Kamala Harris — “the Black brown queen,” as Nair put it, and the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica ― had just become the first Black and Asian American vice president.)
It’s hard to believe now, given Choudhury’s long career in film and television, but “Mississippi Masala” was her debut role. She had studied film in college and was an avid fan of Nair’s work. She auditioned for “Mississippi Masala” thinking that even if she didn’t land the role, she could at least meet Nair and potentially work on the film as a production assistant. Most of Choudhury’s coursework had focused on film theory. But she also harbored “private dreams” of acting, as she recalled in an interview.
“I was feeling a little jaded, and I think I fell into the acting as a way of escape,” Choudhury said. “And so, the dream began. But with Indian parents, it was already enough that I was in film school, let alone I was going to be an actress. So I think I just kept it to myself. So even though it was so important when I went to the audition, I don’t think the dream was in the forefront yet.”
Nair remembers casting Choudhury for her “fierce intelligence and a total absence of vanity in her.”
“I just saw a picture of her, this wild chick on a bicycle with this hair. And that was the image for me: somebody who didn’t care how she looked,” Nair said. “I just loved that she had this kind of intelligence. For me, vanity is the biggest blow to performance. And she just was not interested.”
To this day, it’s a quality that Choudhury, who also starred in Nair’s 1996 film “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” hasn’t lost, according to Nair. She recalled that last year, when Choudhury was shooting “And Just Like That,” HBO Max’s “Sex and the City” revival, “she said, ‘Oh, Mira, they got to scrub me when I come on set,’ because they’ve got to pretty her up. They’ve got to put all the glam on her.”
“She’s not bothered. And she’s inimitable, really,” Nair continued. “She is therefore, in some inner way, the most beautiful creature that walks because it comes from an intelligence. It comes from that spirit, rather than the stuff you put on yourself. And I love that about her. And that’s Mina. Mina is brave and fearless, and she’s a product of her parents and her community. But basically, she’s got her own compass. And she’s not unfeeling and she’s not selfish, but she’s going to do what she’s going to do. And that spirit of fierce independence, she just imbues it, Sarita.”
Over the years, Choudhury has talked about her disastrous audition for the film, when she decided to change her look by not washing her hair for a few days and then putting oil in it, “thinking I was cool.” The confused casting director, who had seen Choudhury before with her regular hair, told her to wash it. “It was crazy. I had half an hour, and I was like, ‘Where am I going to wash my hair?’ So the whole thing was odd,” she said. “Also, at that age, I didn’t like having healthy, beautiful hair. I thought it was ridiculous. So I was very rebellious, but I was also a good girl.”
I mention to Choudhury that it’s not unlike Mina, who is trying to weigh doing what’s expected of her versus charting her own path. “Mira often says it’s because of all those things, she saw it,” Choudhury said. “It’s interesting, because when you’re auditioning, you are just trying to behave, trying to calm all these things down. And yeah, you’re right — in the end, it’s those things that actually book you the job.”
Rehearsals for the film began in New York, where Washington, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Glory,” was starring in Shakespeare in the Park. Production then moved to Mississippi, where Choudhury spent time with the Indian immigrant community, “hanging out with other girls there,” she said. “I saw their complete rebellion, whatever the rebellion was, even if it was small. But they were able to hang in a very languid way.”
In creating the electrifying chemistry with Washington, Choudhury thinks that since this was her debut role opposite a more established actor, it helped her channel the initial reticence between Mina and Demetrius. “He was watching me to see what this first-time actress is going to do. I was watching him thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope I’m not failing him,’” she said of working with Washington. “And it creates this beautiful tension because you’re so different. And the minute they said ‘cut,’ I would just walk away. I was always scared to talk to him or hang out with him, and in a weird way, that fed into the on-screen moments.”
Choudhury remembers that some of the best direction she got from Nair came from the director picking up on real-life details that helped enhance the actors’ performances. “She would say things like, ‘As you’re walking, you know that thing you do with your hair? Do it while you’re talking,’” Choudhury said. “I always love directors who give physical directions, because I feel like descriptive directions are not useful at all. And she’s very good at that, just sensing things I did in life and pulling it in.”
Choudhury’s unforgettable, lightning-in-a-bottle debut performance should have opened the floodgates for her career. But as a South Asian actor, the roles were more like a trickle at best. “It was hard,” she said. “I got a lot of attention and love from the industry, but it didn’t open up opportunities. No one knew what to do with me. There were no roles for people like me then. So it was confusing, because on one hand, I was doing a lot of interviews, I was being flown to festivals, I was meeting other directors who were like, ‘Oh, I want to work with you.’ But then, they didn’t know in what role.”
“I didn’t work for a while,” she continued. “Luckily, I joined a theater company and worked there for a year, which was great anyway, because it taught me so much. It would’ve been so different today, probably. But no, there was no opportunity at the beginning.”
These days, roles for South Asian actors in Hollywood are still not exactly plentiful. But the range of Choudhury’s recent work suggests things are gradually changing for the better. Over the past year, she was on “And Just Like That...” and in the films “After Yang” and “The Green Knight,” works that could not be more different from one another. In particular, her “AJLT” character, the glamorous Manhattan real estate agent Seema Patel, feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s so rare to see a character on a major TV show who’s a proudly single South Asian woman in her 50s — and to see a character of color who’s not specifically defined by her identity. In Season One, we get brief glimpses into Seema’s backstory, and we meet her parents, played by the legendary Indian actors Madhur Jaffrey and Ajay Mehta. In the show’s upcoming second season, Choudhury hopes we’ll get to see more of Seema’s life.
“What does Seema’s house look like? And does she do the dishes? Maybe she loves doing dishes to ground herself. I’m curious to see who she is in her own house, and maybe what would happen if Carrie hung out with her there or met her friends,” Choudhury said. “Just even where she keeps her shoes. Because sometimes people, the way they present themselves on the outside, they’re completely different at home. Especially if you’re a real estate agent, you spend so much time with other people’s homes. Who knows? Maybe your own has got one statue, and it’s not furnished. I don’t even know. But I’m curious.”
Nair also has a full plate of upcoming projects. At the time of our interview, she was in Mumbai, where she’s casting for her long-gestating stage musical adaptation of “Monsoon Wedding,” which was delayed by the pandemic. The musical is set to premiere in Doha, Qatar, in November, before heading to London and New York in 2023. Nair also just directed the pilot for a new Disney+ “National Treasure” series, which reimagines the franchise by featuring a Latina protagonist who is a DACA recipient. And she’s writing the script for “a very cool musical feature film with Pharrell Williams” that features “a Black and brown relationship” ― like “Mississippi Masala” ― “but united by music.”
Nair and Choudhury agree that the issues raised in “Mississippi Masala” hadn’t really been addressed in film before — and have seldom been depicted on screen in the 30 years since.
“I’m trying to think why that it is,” Choudhury said. “On one hand, it scares me, because I’m like, ‘Have we not come far in [30 years]? Why are these things radical?’”
“Or, part of me thinks Mira made a very timeless movie without meaning to, because it takes on such huge eternal dilemmas of leaving home, falling in love — the whole ‘West Side Story’ thing, falling in love with the person you’re not allowed to be with,” she continued. “I think she created a beautiful, timeless puzzle.”