February 15, 2019
There’s a rumor that a studio wouldn’t back Mississippi Masala until director Mira Nair cast Denzel Washington as the film’s charming lead, Demetrius. The interracial love between an Indian woman, Mina (Sarita Choudhury), and a black man, Demetrius (Washington), wasn’t “relatable,” and several financiers didn't think the movie could succeed without a white lead, so they backed out. To this day, few Hollywood films depict interracial relationships between people of color — Will Smith and Eva Mendes’s Hitch is one of the few that come to mind.
Masala, written by Nair’s Harvard College classmate Sooni Taraporevala (who also wrote Salaam Bombay!), focuses on a nuclear family that consists of Mina and her parents Jay (Roshan Seth) and Kinnu (the exalted Sharmila Tagore), who are Ugandan-Indians who left after Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. The film opens with the three of them relocated to Greenwood, Mississippi. Soon, Mina meets Demetrius, a young, handsome carpet cleaner, with whom she falls in love. When their families discover their romance, things begin to unravel.
Nair, the prescient filmmaker, remarked to the LA Times: “People were disconcerted that we had no white characters (among the 79 speaking parts) in the film." She recalls, “One (executive) asked if I couldn't make room for a white protagonist.” Not at all surprising that this happened in the early 90s when, just recently, producers wondered if Rachel Chu should be played by a white girl in Crazy Rich Asians.