Unlike Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" last year, Mira Nair's interracial love story, "Mississippi Masala," is not a black-and-white affair. Here the protagonists are Demetrius, a black man who cleans carpets for a living, and Mina, an Indian woman who was born in Uganda to wealth but whose family is now struggling in a small town in Mississippi.
On the surface, the plotting may not seem vastly different from "Jungle Fever," but the implications here are more complex and the racial tensions more subtly magnified. Add to the mix an interwoven plot about political exile and you have a film that is provocative and timely.
Yet, to her credit, director Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (who also collaborated for "Salaam Bombay!") stay focused on their central characters, played with quiet authority by Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.
A prologue, which is perhaps a bit too long — and which sends us off in the wrong direction — introduces Mina's parents, displaced Indians in Uganda. The father is a lawyer, played by Roshan Seth (best-remembered as Nehru in Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi"), who is being expelled from the country by Idi Amin's regime. As a result, Seth is feeling more than a bit betrayed by his black African friends.
The family first moves to London but eventually settles in Mississippi where family friends run a motel. Here the film's focus shifts to Mina, now grown up and taking on a rebellious independence her family attributes to Americanization.
Mina and Demetrius meet in a traffic accident and then again at a bar, where he rescues her from her overbearing boyfriend. Gradually they begin a clandestine affair, as Mina fears her family will disapprove. But it soon becomes clear that Demetrius' family isn't exactly thrilled about it either.
There are lots of little touches throughout the film showing in detail the disparate cultures of blacks and Indians in this Mississippi town. And those moments are by far the film's most affecting.
Washington and Choudhury get some real heat going with their relationship and both offer excellent performances, but Taraporevala's script too often relies on silly contrivances to move the story along, especially when the community, scandalized at the affair, begins to boycott Demetrius' business.
If the whole is less than perfect, there are more than enough wonderfully evocative pieces to allow us to forgive "Mississippi Masala" for being ragged around the edges. This is a film with something to say, something discriminating adults should find both entertaining and enlightening.
"Mississippi Masala" is rated R for sex, nudity, profanity and violence.