The 1991 romance Mississippi Masala was director Mira Nair’s second film, after the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! Beautifully shot, sexy, and funny (Nair wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala), the movie was a minor indie hit, thanks to its unpolished warmth—plus the chemistry of its stars, Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington. Unfortunately, ownership complications have made it unviewable for years. Contemporary audiences will finally get a chance to see this charmer, as a new restoration is opening this week in New York before rolling out nationwide, and a Criterion Collection edition will follow in May. Mira Nair spoke to me from Mumbai about how studios tried to convince her to make her heroes white, how her own real-life love story influenced her direction, and how she made Denzel Washington the hottest he’s ever been in any movie. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: Before this restoration and the Criterion release, why couldn’t people watch Mississippi Masala?
Mira Nair: Because, like happens with many films, the folks who owned it sold it over and over as part of different libraries. And one lost track of where it was, or even where a print could be found. When I really put my mind to tracking it down, I found it in Nashville, Tennessee, in a music company called SESAC, that had somehow inherited it as part of a deal from the thrice-removed owners. Extraordinarily, they were very open to returning the rights back to me.
That seems like a very unlikely happy ending to this kind of story.
Was it hard to convince people to finance this story?
Oh, yes. Oh yes. The head of Orion at the time heard this idea. By that time we had already written it for Denzel. I had already got Denzel to say yes. He loved Salaam Bombay! and that was the reason he wanted to meet me. I pitched the story, and the head of the studio says to me, “Can you make room for a white protagonist?” That was his exact line.
What movie did he think you were making?!
Can I make room for a white protagonist! And I said, “I can promise you one thing, that all the waiters in this film will be white.” And he kind of looked at me and laughed, and I laughed, and he politely showed me the door.
So you had Denzel. Where did Sarita Choudhury come from?
I found Sarita in a very cutting-edge British magazine where I saw this fantastic four-page spread of this girl with the wild hair. So I asked Susie Figgis, my casting director, to find her. She was a film student, not an actor. A student of film in London. She was brought into a casting session. Susie kept telling me she’s late, sorry, but what had happened is that Sarita had come there with her hair all neatly oiled and not wild at all. Susie took one look at her and sent her straight to the salon with £10 and said, “You go wash that hair and you don’t coif it.” Meanwhile, Susie was saying, “Let’s go take you to lunch, Mira,” just distracting me while Sarita came back. And she was what I dreamed of, really. Incredibly intelligent, extraordinary sensuality. Fierce in her independence.
Mina is so confident in this movie. She knows what she wants. Even when things get messy, she might feel bad about making trouble for her family, but she never, ever feels bad for wanting Demetrius. And that felt very refreshing to me at the time, and it still feels refreshing now.
Yeah. She has absolute bravery in her blood. She was brave and that’s what we wanted. We cast Sharmila Tagore as her mother in the film. She is an icon. She’s a big, big star here. She’s Satyajit Ray’s heroine from the Apu Trilogy. And then Roshan Seth came, who was perfect. Actually, to be very honest, we wrote the film for Ben Kingsley, instead of Roshan Seth.
I was in Venice, and I was quite the toast of the town from Salaam Bombay! Ben Kingsley came to me, and I said, “We wrote this film for you,” and he actually said this—I don’t know why I’m telling you this—he said [Ben Kingsley voice] “Mira, I only do title roles.”
And I kind of joked and said, “Oh, well, we could call it Jay Patel.” He was not amused.
Let’s talk about Sarita and Denzel and the chemistry between them. Rewatching the movie this time, I really admired that long shot on the bayou where they’re walking together and he asks if he can kiss her. And then right as they kiss, we realize that the camera has been slowly tracking in on them the whole time. Do you have specific memories of shooting that scene?
I completely have memories. Last month I was directing in Baton Rouge, and I took the Amtrak to Greenwood, Mississippi, to find the bayou where we shot that scene. I had always seen it as a long take, because I used to feel that romantic scenes were always kind of all cut up and artificially ellipsed. They don’t have the electricity and the slow sizzle of what it’s really like. Some of the awkwardness and the tenderness and the nerves. And I find that all extremely affecting and beautiful.
Their chemistry, it did reflect the slow growing affection that allowed them to find each other. And the great courtesy that I felt in the South. The great courtesy of may I kiss you. It’s none of that movie-style smashing into each other. I mean, a lot of it is just concocted. Life is often not like that.
I have long maintained to friends that Denzel Washington has never been hotter in a movie than he is in this one. This is the absolute peak hotness of Denzel Washington. But rewatching it, I think what I finally realized is: It’s not just that he is 35 and looks great. It’s the movie! It’s the story you wrote.
It’s Denzel’s probably only romantic role that he ever played with such vulnerability.
Yes, he’s so vulnerable and eager and happy to be with her, and he just didn’t get to do that many movies where he got to be romantic and sexy.
Well, I was also making this film in a stupor of love myself. I had fallen in love for the first time, and I just knew what it was feeling like.
With someone you met researching this movie in Uganda.
Yes. My husband of now 32 years, he’s in the other room right now. Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan professor and activist. So I was in this, like a lightning bolt.
When we started with the non-love stuff in the movie, Denzel was just consummate, I mean, man, he’s just in his being. He would enter the restaurant in the scene and he would just be so deeply natural and completely charismatic at the same time. It was just so real. But when it came to the love stuff, I was not feeling it.
I also should tell you that I was warned by a good friend, Spike Lee, he used to tease me and say, “Denzel is not going to take his shirt off.” Then I would come to the set and he’s under the car, fixing the car, and he’s taken his shirt off on his own. I would just laugh internally and think, Spike, I never asked him and there he was.
He just knew that’s what the movie needed.
But I still didn’t get this vulnerability thing that I myself was feeling. The stupor, the love stupor. I remember he’d won the Oscar for Glory, and I was this second-time filmmaker pacing outside his trailer, really nervous. I walked into the trailer and I said, “Denzel, I’m getting everything, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, it’s fantastic.” And then he looked at me like, Get on with it. What do you want?
I said, “I’m not getting the vulnerability that love can cause. It’s a beautiful thing. And I want that.” He looked at me again with his sort of pale eyes like, Oh yeah? And I said, “Just in case you think I’m a sentimental female fool, I think the audiences are going to just be weak-kneed when you open your heart.” That really hit him. He got it.
And it really worked!
Dan, do you know that I always go to the openings all over the country? I was definitely in New York, definitely in LA. I worried, to see whether African American audiences would not like the idea of an Asian girl. But it was interactive. It was a scream fest. I would go to the loos, that’s the best place to understand how people are liking a movie or not. And they would be like a drooling fest.
Right. To see people enjoying that kind of sexuality and attraction and connection is really rewarding.
And it was unfettered. It wasn’t all processed and judged up. It was real. And of course the novelty of seeing Black and brown skin in the one frame, that was a big thing. Frankly, I have not seen it in 30 years since, as much as it should be celebrated. That was the other thing about the audiences. In England, the lines that were seeing this film, they were all hybrid folk, interracial, mixed people, people who had never seen themselves on screen. And it dawned on me then that, “Oh my God, there really is an audience for my work.” I had never felt that. I was always feeling marginal, neither being here nor there. But it was all put to bed with Mississippi Masala.