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Migrant communities question identity- should they assimilate into the host culture or retain their own cultural practices? They mostly arrive at a compromise, a balance where they adopt a public face that blends with the majority culture while preserving distinctive religious and cultural traditions at home. Mississippi Masala, by Mira Nair, is a movie that explores interracial romance between African Americans and Indian Americans in the United States. The movie also deals with themes of Hybrid Diaspora and a feeling of restlessness while searching for one’s identity. This paper will attempt to understand the portrayal of the different identities in the movie.
The movie begins with the expulsion of Asians from Africa, which is under the rule of Idi Amin. Jay, one of the main characters in the movie, considers Uganda to be his home, insisting to his childhood friend Okelo that he had always been Ugandan first and Indian second. The latter remarks by saying “Africa is now for Africans, black Africans”. This remark hurts Jay deeply and he refuses to further communicate to the man he considered his brother. This shows the first instance of conflicting identities. Many more are observable in Mina, Dmitrius and their respective communities.
Although Jay maintains that Uganda is home and that his identity as an Indian comes later, he raises his daughter in accordance to the norms set by the Indian society. As judging by the language she uses and her attire as shown in the flashbacks shown in the movie, Mina has been raised according to the Indian traditions. She calls her uncles and aunties chacha and mausi, she wears a traditional Indian dress for her birthday. Like any other Indian father, Jay pressurizes Mina to go to college and get a proper education; like any other Indian mother, her mother Kinu worries about her marriage.
Mina identifies herself as an Indian. She tells Dmitrius about the people that go to the Motel she lives and works in. She says, “They look at us and they say, ‘Not another god dammed Indian!’ It makes me so mad.” Despite having a father who has always put his culture secondary, Mina considers herself a true Indian even though she has never been to India. She feels included in the morning prayers performed in the Indian tradition and customs by her uncle. Although she was born in Africa and spent most of her life in Africa and Europe, she associates herself with a country she has never been to; she calls herself a “mixed masala”, invariably contextualizing herself to the Indian culture.
Dmitrius, on the other hand, is an African American who has never been to Africa. Although he accepts his heritage and culture, he is furious with the racism shown towards his people and himself. He tells Mina, “Racism, or, as they say now a days, tradition, is passed down like recipes. The trick is, you got to know what to eat, and what to leave on your plate.”
Listlessness is powerfully portrayed in the film; a small Indian community ends up in a rather nondescript Mississippi town. Here, they appear rootless, somehow alienated from their context. They work. They survive. Yet they seem adrift in the world. Having put down roots before, they are perhaps afraid to do so again. For some members of this community, India lays a long way off in their families’ past. They have never been there. However, when asked, they still call themselves Indian. The Indian community is portrayed as a mix here. As seen in Anil’s wedding, the women are clad in Indian attire while some of the men wore their traditional Indian wear and others donned Western suits. Anil’s father, Jammu Bhai, a man who is very devoted to his country, tries to bring a sense of patriotic devotion to the reception as he suggests “even though we are 10,000 miles away from India, we should not forget our roots, our culture, our tradition and our Gods”. He encourages the gathering to join him in singing a traditional Hindu hymn, but the manner in which the party complies is interesting to note. It can be seen that people are drunk, bored or not interested, but still comply in a herd mentality. The entire wedding is conducted in a typical Indian fashion, with Indian music being sung, garlands being hung from the ceilings, etc. There are women gossiping about families (in this scenario, Mina’s) and men getting drunk and dancing. The Indian identity has been portrayed well with its exuberant colors and music.
The romantic identity in the movie is shaped strongly through the cultural identity of the characters. The two protagonists, Mina and Dmitrius, have strong ties to their culture that has helped them shape their identities. Their cultural identities are strong, but as they fall in love, it comes into conflict. Key to the idea of culture is that of identity. Culture stems from our identity, because it is “inherited memories” we have gained from our ancestors passed down to us. Stuart Hall explains, “‘Cultural identity’ in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.” In Mississippi Masala we see this with both families. At Dmitrius’s family dinner we get to see everyone gathering around their grandfather for his birthday, talking about growing up together. We see this also with Mina’s family, at the wedding and other various random family get-togethers in which they celebrate with their native India’s customs. Despite the fact that they are in America, and attempt to fit in, they still actively practice their religion, which many of the locals deem foreign.
Hall also argues that though one shares a cultural and social identity, he has an identity outside of that which is defined by his own individual words and actions. Dmitrius in the film is shown against the backdrop of his culture, in which many of those amongst his age are just hanging out, and loitering the streets. He stands out because he works hard with his carpet cleaning business and takes his life seriously. Mina breaks away from her family heritage by running away with Dmitrius, giving Mina an identity away from her culture as well. They both look outward to define themselves, not allowing culture to define themselves.
Mira Nair, in an interview with BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), says that she related to the character of Mina a lot as she saw herself in the place of Mina. “I always had the idea of Mississippi Masala in mind… about being brown in between black and white.” Through her movie, Mississippi Masala, she has managed to capture the conflicting identities of, not only the protagonists, but also of their societies as a whole.
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