It’s an awkward meet-cute at best: A girl, trying to ignore her chattering mother riding in the passenger seat of her car, accidentally rams into the back of a young, attractive carpet cleaner’s van. That night, they meet again at a local club. She doesn’t even need to bring him home before her parents voice their disapproval. In 1991, Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala, a sort of anti–Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The interracial romance between Mina (Sarita Choudhury) and Demetrius (Denzel Washington) is just one part of an Indian family’s complicated relationship with America. Mina’s father, Jay (Roshan Seth), tries to impress upon his daughter their Ugandan roots and the injustice of Indians being exiled by Idi Amin; their home there, though, feels like a distant memory to the 20-something that drives fast and wears Bob Marley T-shirts. Falling in love with Demetrius lets Mina see herself, her family, and the pervasive racism of the Deep South with a new clarity. The movie doesn’t make any big declarations about diversity or prejudice but observes how casually they can infect and how blithely they can obscure otherwise-generous minds. (The movie isn’t streaming anywhere at the moment, but there are ways to not watch it not legally.)
Two things about Mississippi Masala remain as true now as 30 years ago, when this movie came out: A Denzel Washington romance is too rare an occurrence. And Choudhury’s performance — her first acting job ever! — was on the level of Frances McDormand’s Blood Simple debut or LaKeith Stanfield’s acting in Short Term 12. It’s still astonishing, in retrospect, just how good Choudhury is — her confidence, her tenderness, the way her wild intensity matches Washington’s natural magnetism. Today, Choudhury chalks it up to being young enough, and inexperienced enough, to know what she didn’t know. “After I saw Mississippi Masala, I realized Mira really was great at harnessing something in me and letting it be. I’m so grateful for her. And then, after that, I realized I’m not always going to have someone like Mira, so I went back and studied and got confidence. I couldn’t wing it anymore.” Choudhury, currently quarantined in New York City, answered Vulture’s every question about working in the South, playing off of Denzel, and waiting to feel like she made it.
Can you give me a sense of what was going on in your life when you auditioned for Mississippi Masala?
I had just graduated from film school, where I’d studied film theory. I kind of snuck into the drama department during university and fell in love with the idea of it. I never thought I’d be an actress; I just thought, Oh, I love this. I moved to London and didn’t have any work, didn’t have any money, was doing whatever job I could get. I had a stint doing some modeling, which was odd because I’m five-foot-seven, and I wasn’t skinny. This was in the early ’90s, so the modeling jobs were very street fashion; they wanted people who looked normal.
My agent was like, “There’s this woman, Mira. She’s looking for this girl to play one of the leads in Mississippi Masala.” I knew Mira’s work from film school. I’d seen her documentaries and obviously Salaam Bombay! I auditioned, and the whole process was odd only because I didn’t have any money. [The audition] was in Soho in London. I didn’t have money to get back home. At that age, you don’t think about it. You’re just so excited. I think I went in to read two or three times. On the third time, Mira asked me to stay. I was a bit confused because she said, “It was so nice meeting you. Thank you so much. By the way, do you wanna have a drink later?” But the “by the way” didn’t sound like I was going to get the role. That was the time when I couldn’t afford to go home, so I waited four hours and then met her for the drink, and she was so beautiful. We sat down, and she just stared at me and said, “Would you do the honor of playing Mina?” And I burst into tears! I ran to a pay phone and called my parents collect, who were in Bangladesh.
What was it like to audition, given that you’d never read for anything before?
I remember feeling happy and like I did a good job. But it was clear that she must’ve been like, Wow, this girl needs a lot of work, because I remember Mira said, “Go home. Try and learn the lines.” She gave me some notes, and I did. I remember saying to her at one point, “If I don’t get this role, could I just be on set and bring you coffee?” I just so wanted to work with her. Maybe that helped my audition. I just remember feeling free, and her wanting that freedom, but at the same time wanting me to concentrate as well.
In the time since Mississippi Masala, you and Mira have developed a great artistic partnership, but what did you see in her when you had drinks with her?
When I was at university, I saw her films. First of all, if you’re Indian, another filmmaker who’s Indian — and a woman — talking things you relate to, it’s so mind-blowing! She had a keen intelligence, and I wanted to be around another Indian woman who had that. At university, I was heading on a very intellectual semiotic route, stuff that Mira and I used to make fun of. I was so extreme, and when I met her, I’d finally met another Indian woman who’s extreme, like me, but in a different way. I just wanted to be around her.
Can you tell me more about the difference in that extremeness? How you saw yourself versus how you saw her?
In my journey at university, toward the end, I was falling out of love with writing. I was getting so in my head. When I met Mira, I saw someone who was physicalizing intelligence in a way I couldn’t. I’d been a very physical person; I was obsessed with dance. But something in university took me to the other extreme, which I’m grateful for, but I knew it wasn’t my path fully. I think Mira showed me this other option: You could use all these thoughts and, in her case, put them down visually and in a story. I remember that moment where I thought, Oh my God, this is what I’ve been looking for.
That’s the perfect friendship.
When you meet [Mira] and you just look in her eyes, it’s like if you see an animal in the forest. She holds your attention. She’s very charismatic. It’s all in her eyes. When I met her, I was like, Whoa. She makes me feel very awake.
What happened after your auditions and after you got the part?
There was like a six-month waiting period. I don’t think I had the script yet at that point. Then they asked me and Denzel to come to New York for a two-week rehearsal, which is unusual for a film and such a privilege. A few days before that period, I got the script, but again, I had no sense of how to approach a script. I just read it. I still had that kind of Oh, this is going to be fun feeling. It wasn’t until rehearsal where I had to reckon with how much I didn’t know.
What were those rehearsals like?
Even though it was at the beginning of his career, Denzel had already won the Oscar for Glory, and he had done Cry Freedom, so I knew who he was. He had such a presence. For the most part during the rehearsals, I kept my head down. I definitely was shy around him and aware that he had earned this badge and I hadn’t. But I had this freedom, again, because I didn’t know anything. I was just trying everything. I loved it. It would be interesting to ask him what he thought. He must’ve been super-generous and kind, because I don’t remember ever feeling that I wasn’t up to par or something.
They were real rehearsals! Mira directed us very specifically, and we got a lot of work done. I remember Denzel was in a play doing Shakespeare in the Park, and he would leave every day at like 4 p.m. and take the subway up to the park. It was a great time.
I’m curious what it was like, generally, to be a novice and working with someone who’d literally just won an Oscar. Did you feel nervous about that?
Do you know that feeling when you’ve just graduated and you’re deeply insecure, but the last thing you do is show insecurity?
I was in that phase, I think. You don’t have any references. For my first job to be that part, my mind was so blown. But also: This is your life! I felt like I’d better show up, because I don’t want them to know that I’m faking it.
What resonated with you about the Mina character?
I understood her so completely.
Were you that rebellious?
I think I’m a very polite rebel. I always go for what I want, but I never want to hurt people’s feelings. I think a lot of rebels that I like have that quality, which allows them to go far. In Mina, I recognized she was someone in love — in love in a way where love takes over the body. It’s not about wanting to defy my parents or wanting to break rules. She’s just following love.
What happened when you finally started shooting in Mississippi?
I haven’t revisited this for so long. After those two weeks in New York, we moved to Greenwood, Mississippi, to a motel complex. That was kind of cool because it had a pool in the middle, and a lot of us stayed there — all the Indian actors who’d flown over. The way the motel was curved, you could kind of see everyone’s balcony. It was so much fun. Because I’d never done a movie, I didn’t realize what it meant to play a lead — that you are working every day, and you’re not going to be just hanging out. The first week, we had costume fittings and rehearsals.
Day to day, what was it like?
The first week was the hardest because I really figured out that it was hard work to repeat takes. Some of the Indian characters in the movie were played by some of the top comedians and actors in India. I couldn’t stop laughing a little bit. I could barely act with Ranjit Chowdhry because I kept laughing. He just stared me down, like, Who is this kid that they got? Where are you from?
I would be so excited to have a day off, even though I was so tired. We found out that the next city, which was like 45 minutes away, had a place that had cappuccinos and a bookstore. We would literally all go there to do normal things. I hung out in the pool on weekends and slept a lot. The weird thing about when you play a lead is you’re actually quite lonely because, even though on set you’re always surrounded by people, you don’t have that much downtime, so you don’t form that many deep bonds. I remember thinking, Oh my God, I’m so not popular! I need to make friends! On set, I would make an extra effort so that on a Friday I would have something to do on the weekend.
That first week was about figuring out how to deal with blocking and words. By the end of the first week, the physicality of it became normal to me, and the hours and the repetition. I definitely grew over the six weeks of shooting.
I remember thinking, Okay. Even though I’m feeling scared and shy right now, I just have to stare this person down. Right now, I have to steal this car. I just remember constantly being like, Get over yourself. Get over your nerves. No one cares. No one would see that. I was almost having to rebel against myself to play Mina.
I know you had a very peripatetic upbringing, but had you spent any time in the American South before?
No, that was my first time. Culturally, it was like no other place. You think when you’ve grown up in many places that there’s a similarity you can latch on to in another place. But from the beautiful things and the non-beautiful things, they were all so unique to me. There was a deep racism that was palpable, and I guess I’d never really experienced or seen that. But there was community in a way that was still beautiful. It was very segregated. I’d never seen segregation.
I should clarify I’m Black, and I think this movie discusses colorism in a way we don’t see that often.
There’s that line in the movie — I can’t remember it exactly, but it’s something along the lines of, “If you’re dark and rich, you’ll get married. If you’re fair and poor, you’ll get married. If you’re dark and poor, no chance.” In our own groups, we know the rules and we know the internal racism. But because there’s so much fighting with the outer groups, you kind of let a lot slide or you’re embarrassed to mention it. That’s what I thought was super-brave about Mira doing this, because she was saying “Look at us,” you know?
In the middle of all the racial and class conflicts, this is still a love story. Can you tell me about building out the Mina-Demetrius romance? There’s so much chemistry there.
Chemistry is an interesting thing because we don’t know how chemistry reads. If chemistry exists in a film, as an actor — I mean, everyone has secrets on how to create that, but you also just hope it’s there. You can’t guarantee there’s going to be chemistry, and it has a lot to do with the non-playing of that. I think I was lucky because I was shy in Denzel’s presence, but as a person, I also wasn’t really shy. I think that weird combination of reverence and deferring worked. It helped. I remember, in some scenes, I couldn’t look at him. Because when I did, I felt like I would blush. Holding back then allowed a little bit of growth for when I did have to look at him. Denzel is very charismatic, and there’s something very honorable about him. Sometimes when you have that space between two actors, when you break it, the chemistry pops, you know, because you’re not just falling over each other for any reason. There’s a structure to it.
Right, I think there’s a kind of pleasant tension between these two characters that works really nicely.
Yeah, there’s tension. And tension can look like chemistry and has the same quality.
We have to talk about your hair in this movie and how great it is.
A funny thing happened when I showed up for one of the auditions. I think I had to meet the casting director alone one day, and she approved me and then told me to come back in like two days to meet Mira. When I showed up for that meeting, I had oiled my hair. I don’t know why! I’d never done it before in my life. So as I go in, [the casting director] was the one to greet me first. She looked at me and she goes, “What did you do?” I was like, “What?” And she’s like, “Your hair!” I thought it was so cool. When you have a lot of hair, you don’t ever love what you have. I thought it was too heavy and too crazy, and to oil it down made me feel like the alternative: to look like a good girl.
But no! She was like, “You have to go out, get it washed. And you make up a reason that you’re late.” Like I told you, I didn’t have money. So I went to a barbershop for men in London, and I asked the guy if I could give him two pounds to just wash my hair. He was so bored of me, but he did it. I went back to the audition. That was the beginning of the hair thing, which clearly was more important than I realized then. And I guess Mira filmed it a lot.
“A lot” is an understatement! I think the hair becomes a key player in your chemistry with Denzel.
I had a habit — and I still do — of twisting it up and then like literally half an hour later, I just push it and it comes down. I put it back up and then it comes down again. Mira let me do that a lot in the movie. Usually in movies, you get your hair done, and if it’s too windy, they want it not to move too much. So a lot of actors don’t put their hands through their hair, you know, because there’s so much product. I think it was the only movie where, literally, I don’t think they did anything to my hair.
Do you think that, after this movie, you got the opportunities that you wanted or felt like you were ready for?
No. After this movie, I got so much love and no money. No one [in Hollywood] knew what to do with me. It was a time when there was no one really like me, or definitely no one Indian, in the acting scene. Even though I’d grown up in so many countries and felt I could play many different things, it took a while for the industry to — I don’t know if it’s to “allow me,” or that I just found a way to do it. Those first two years, I’d get the feeling a lot was happening, but I know it was hard to get a job.
That’s so frustrating.
I would get the call to go to L.A. and then I’d go to L.A., and I’m all excited and then nothing would happen. So then I come back to New York. I think there was like a year where I just — you’re invited to a lot of places or you traveled with the film. You feel like you’re going to the next level, but you’re not. I did get frustrated. A year and a half later, I got offered a movie in London, so I went and did it. And then, after that, I had an audition for a Shakespeare company. It wasn’t the best time to go and do a year of Shakespeare, but I remember thinking if I don’t, I can’t keep living like this “something’s going to happen” feeling. I felt like I needed to start learning. And so I did.