02/17/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
, Sarita Choudhury
A witty and fresh romantic comedy from director Mira (Salaam Bombay!) Nair, Mississippi Masala takes its title from Indian cooking: Masala is a hot mix of multicolor spices. Appropriately the movie is about the heat generated when different races and cultures collide in small-town Mississippi.
Demetrius and Mina are in love, and their families are not happy about it. Demetrius (Washington), a worthy guy with his own carpet-cleaning business, is black. Mina (Choudhury), a restless young woman, temporarily working as a motel maid, is Indian but by way of Uganda, her birthplace, and later England, where her family took refuge after Idi Amin booted Asians out of Uganda in 1972. Now she and her parents have come to Greenwood, Miss., to join Indian friends who have taken over the running of a small roadside motel.
Masala is also about the notion of diaspora—Demetrius is an African-American who has never been to Africa, and Mina is an Indian who has never been to India—and about finding one's home within oneself and with those you love rather than in a specific place. That may sound like a mouthful, but once you get past an overlong prologue about Mina's family leaving Uganda, the film plays with idiosyncratic charm, thanks to a strong cast and Sooni Taraporevala's character-driven screenplay.
Washington's performance in Masala will make a believer out of anyone who ever doubted that he is an A-list movie star and sex symbol. This man is debonair. And magnetic. And he has an innate sweetness like Henry Fonda's but with even more steel. Choudhury, a newcomer to movies, starts out unsteadily hut improves as the movie progresses. Roshan Seth and Sharmila Tagore are moving as Mina's parents, and Charles (Roc) Dutton is hilarious as Demetrius's blowhard buddy. It's definitely worth dipping into this melting pot to sample Masala's tangy stew. (R)