After 1988's "Salaam Bombay!", director Mira Nair traveled in the Deep South to make an intriguing discovery: Indian and Pakistani Asians own and run many independent motels there, after living for two or more generations in Uganda, where, until Idi Amin threw them out in 1972, they proved adept as small business owners.
Opening as an Indian lawyer and his wife (Seth and Tagore) are comfortable and secure in Uganda, the film shows Amin confiscating their property, and ordering their exile; they relocate to Greenwood, MS, where they buy a small motel. Later, beautiful daughter Mina (Choudhury), 24, who barely recalls Africa, makes plain that she doesn't share her family's views. Hitting the van of a black man, Demetrius (Washington), Mina senses his interest. They date, but her disapproving parents want her to marry within their community, and forbid her to see him again.
The ironies of racism thus intensify her isolation. Too dark-skinned to be desirable in her own community, Mina ignores her mother's idea to "catch a husband by being dark and rich." Demetrius' family and community at first accept Mina when she meets them at a picnic, but as local Indian motel-owners boycott his rug-cleaning service, reject her.
Black and Indian characters (and the few visible local whites) don't want to meet individuals of other races, whom they see only in stereotypes, and about whom they lack curiosity. Everyone around the couple puts down their love. The irony is that racism first took Indians to Africa to build railroads, then kicked them out, then brought Africans to America. Facing racism doesn't keep anyone from prejudice. Despite such serious issues, the film is funny, cheerful, and utterly romantic.
This could be three movies, and Nair would better have decided to leave out a lot, especially many Uganda scenes. As the father returns to his home from 20 years earlier in closing scenes, the narrative and the love story are both diluted. Nair includes much that's interesting about the daily lives of Indians in Mississippi, but that puts the lovers too much into the background. But she shows people unusual to most Americans, coping with conditions that carried blacks and Indians alike out of Africa and to Mississippi. Most of them, after such upheavals, have no curiosity about anyone outside their social or racial circles, but, importantly, a few do.
Denzel Washington, Sarita Choudhury
Racism between blacks and Asian Indians in Mississippi
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