a long talk

Mira Nair on Making Mississippi Masala a Radical Act of Love

Photo: Janus Films

For more than 40 years, filmmaker Mira Nair has poked at the boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, and nationality to explore the infinite possibilities of identity. After a decade of crafting documentaries about daily life in her home country (mosque visitors in Jama Masjid Street Journal, strippers in India Cabaret), she broke through internationally with her first feature film, 1988’s Salaam Bombay!, about street children living hand to mouth in the same city that serves as India’s flourishing financial center. As Salaam Bombay! became the second Indian film nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 61st Academy Awards, Nair was already at work on her next project: the interracial love story Mississippi Masala, which would both change her life and become a cult classic.

With a plot that begins in Kampala, Uganda, before moving to Greenwood, Mississippi, Mississippi Masala follows 20-somethings Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a Black man, and Mina (Sarita Choudhury, in her first role), an Indian woman whose family was exiled from Uganda by President Idi Amin. Alongside her mother, Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), and her father, Jay (Roshan Seth), who writes countless letters to the Ugandan government to reclaim the land they were forced to leave, Mina works and lives at a motel owned by her extended family. A car accident with Demetrius, who cleans the carpets at her family’s motel, sparks an affair between the two that confuses both the Indian and Black communities to which they respectively belong.

Mina’s family — including a scene-stealing Nair as a gossipy relative — sees Demetrius as lesser-than and threatens his livelihood by cutting off his contracts with the Indian-Ugandan network of Southern motels. Demetrius’s family and friends wonder what Mina offers that a Black woman wouldn’t and whether he’s using her to make an ex-girlfriend jealous. As their circles work to keep them apart, Demetrius and Mina must decide whether a future together is even possible.

Nair’s film highlights the tensions and differences between Black and brown communities through its soundtrack (Indian and African songs during the Greenwood scenes, blues during the Kampala scenes) and color palette (jewel tones for Uganda, earth tones for Mississippi), while also celebrating the gentle joy of falling in love (the tenderness of a first kiss, the glee of a shared carnival ride). A 4K digital restoration of Mississippi Masala undertaken by the Criterion Collection and supervised by Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman opens April 15 at the IFC Center in New York before a later national rollout, and the film joins the Criterion physical-media collection in May.

“It was unusual at that time to have models, even role models, to see that this could work. It was still a path that was fraught with society’s questioning,” says Nair of the film’s interracial relationship. Nair’s busy schedule includes recently wrapping the pilot of Disney+’s revamped National Treasure series; working on the Monsoon Wedding musical, which opens in November at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar; setting up writing and production on “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” adaptation series with Amazon; and collaborating with Pharrell Williams on a musical that will also feature a Black-brown romance at its center.

I spoke to Nair recently about the humor and cinéma vérité style that shaped Mississippi Masala, the film’s frank portrayal of racism and colorism within the South Asian diaspora and xenophobia from Americans toward immigrants, and choreographing the erotic scenes between Washington and Choudhury that reflect love as a radical act.

When I say Mississippi Masala now, 30 years after its release, what is the first memory that comes to mind? 
Wow. The first memory — well, there are more than one, and they’re kind of equal. The first memory is Greenwood, Mississippi, really, and very much mixed with that is Kampala, Uganda, at the end of the civil war, 1989, when I first went there. The combination actively changed my life forever. And it’s like the map in the credits sequence of Mississippi Masala, which takes you from East Africa to the Deep South. It is astonishing that these places that are so, in a sense, removed from each other are actually so interconnected in ways that would be impossible to predict or see until I had actually marched that experience — through the story of several stories that propelled us to make our story.

Mississippi Masala also changed your life personally: You fell in love with the country of Uganda; you fell in love with Mahmood Mamdani, who would become your second husband and whom you met there. I wonder how you think about the film — if you think about it primarily in professional terms or personal ones. 
I would say professional, because initially the fire to make something about a brown person, like myself, between Black and white — that is what propelled this film finally into being. And that is a personal story, too, but it was really sparked by being brown at Harvard, and being invisible and visible to both communities. I had never left my country of India until I was 18, and in India, we have class wars and we have caste wars, but we don’t have color wars in the way that I experienced in America and the world after that. In India, we have a lot to say about color, for sure. In India still, you goddamn sell Fair & Lovely. You still sell those creams, and you still sell that idea of fairness being beautiful. But we don’t have the enormous proximity, the beautiful proximity, of colors: Black, brown, white, everyone else. That I experienced for the first time when I came here, and also genuinely experienced it in friendships, in a beautiful sort of socialization.

It prompted me to explore that path: How is it that we think of it as a hierarchy? How does it manifest? And because I was really a student of cinéma vérité, it was life itself that taught me to go to Mississippi. So many exiles from Uganda, Ugandan Asians, really ended up there because it was dirt-poor Mississippi. They could afford their businesses; they could afford to enter where it was not prohibitively closed to them. And that was such a strange trick of history. That is really how I pursued it — totally based on research. We must have interviewed 2,000 Ugandan Asian exiles in America and in England before we even commenced.

So while at Harvard, you’re seeing some overlap in how the Black community is treated, and how immigrants are treated, and how these communities operate internally. Did you see commonalities or differences between those groups? You mentioned there were some boundaries you felt you could not cross.
It was not so much “Black” or “immigrant” like that. One didn’t think of it like that. We were all in this institution, which was a large and varied one — and yes, largely a white one — but it was also quite deeply, committedly international. For me, it was entirely personal. The sort of ease with which I could enter the Black Student Caucus because I was seen as sort of a third-world sister. And there was an ease also, to some extent, into the majority white community, as friends go. That swing was fluid for me, but not for many people. It was very much a cliquish situation. That was interesting for me, that I could, but what were the lines that divided us?

My writer Sooni [Taraporevala] and I wanted to find interracial mixed couples, especially in the South. And we trudged a long way to find people who had lived that, and we did. But they were few and far between. When we made the film, in London, I remember just looking at the lines marching to see the film — they were all mixed race, they were all interracial. They were like, This is our anthem. And it’s so beautiful because, in the process of making it, we were still unusual. Deeply unusual.

Was there anything you learned from the mixed-race couples you interviewed that worked its way into the script?
The biggest thing was that it was possible. [Laughs.] I think we met, with difficulty, two couples in the South. But the biggest thing was that it was possible, and in the case of the people we had found, harmonious. But I did remember feeling that it was more a co-opting of one into another’s race rather than really living actively both.

I faced an onslaught from Asian men when the movie came out — openly. “Why are you doing this? Why are you challenging us? What do you think, that every Black man is Denzel? You’ve got something coming.” Openly, they would talk to me, in this country. But it also did pretty well commercially when it came out. It wasn’t like it was just sidelined. It did start up a conversation. I saw it, I felt it. The soundtrack was hugely popular. But I would still say that Asian men were positively threatened by this film.

You went to Greenwood, you spoke to the 2,000 exiles, and then Sooni came in. What did she bring to the script?
Sooni brought so much, as she always does with my films. I went into it with ideas of what I wanted to do, and I was quite clear — especially as we unearthed Uganda, even before we went there — about what this family longed for. They considered themselves really Ugandan; they never quite settled in Mississippi and always longed for that as home. I was interested in Mina being their daughter, but she didn’t see one as different from the other. She was born and raised that way; that was her home. Those things I brought, those pillars of the story. But what Sooni brought was an extraordinary sense of what I now call “political fun.” We were outrageous, and we couldn’t get away with those ideas if I were to make this film today. We would not be allowed to say, “Send them back to the reservation, that’s what I say,” or the N-word, or this or that — so many things that we just pressed down on because that is what the vocabulary was at the time, and still is, but is now all PC-ed.

But what Sooni has is an extraordinary sense of how to make an actual story with living flesh-and-blood characters that don’t just espouse these ideas, but live in them. And we really share a sense of humor about how to see. We have both been outsiders for a long time. We have viewed things that we are both invited into, but yet are outside of, for a long time, and that gives us a commonality. That’s what I love when I see the film again now: how much we packed in in terms of politics and emotion, but through such a believable and very funny script. It’s rare to be able to do that in writing and narrative, especially in such a prickly zone.

Did anyone else read for the role of Demetrius, or was Denzel always the first choice?
Always Denzel. It was written for him, really. I had success with Salaam Bombay!. He was not a star at the time; he was up-and-coming. He had done For Queen and Country, and he had just finished shooting Glory, but it was not out. I remember my first meeting with him at the Plaza, and he met me for two reasons: He loved Salaam Bombay!, and he had never, ever been asked to do something quite like this. The Asian/Black thing was original for him. That was a very lovely reason to meet me, but I was quite nervous. I used to smoke only while casting, and I said, “Do you mind if I smoke?” I remember that’s how we began. He said, “It’s your lungs.” And I was immediately like, [concerned gasp]: What have I done? Wrong foot! I started on the wrong foot!

He’s a real filmmaker. The reason he met me was Salaam Bombay!, truly. And then he was, I would say, immediately interested, but he had to do another film, and we had to wait. We were prepared to, although it really affected us, and then he left that other film. I don’t know at which point. And that’s when he came back to us. So that’s how that happened.

In an old interview with the Los Angeles Times, you said of Denzel, “He read the script and told Sooni and me that it was obvious we knew a lot about the lives of the Indian community in Mississippi, but he felt we should flesh out his character and show a little more of the black community too.” How did the script change after that suggestion?

It was not so didactic as that. He just said, “We have to make it feel as total and as holistic as we knew the Indian community.” And in that, I think he meant more, Get past the emblematic. Really get into the vocabulary, get into the dreams of people in the same way. And a huge part of that was being in Greenwood, and shooting that in Greenwood. He is not a Southerner, and he was quite alarmed about the South. We had a mansion for him, and he said, “No way, man, I’m not staying alone in the house. I’m living with you guys.” So we all stayed shacked up in Ramada Inn, which was quite unusual even for a rising young actor like him.

But he propelled us to go much further into the community, especially with the language. We lived in Greenwood for six months. We had people we worked with for the dialogue, real people. How would you say this? Say that? And friendships with that community really helped us flesh out those scenes, without any conflict with Denzel. It was more like, What else can we do? How else can we make this sing? Whether it be life in the juke joints or life in family barbecues.

And Demetrius was a real guy we met, in Myrtle Beach, of all places. We were there as part of our research, and he was a carpet cleaner. And I remember this line, “Your dirt is our bread and butter,” which is what they wear on their caps. The interesting thing about the Indian community, as you see in the film, is that they almost never hire other folk. They do everything themselves, but the thing they don’t do is clean carpets. It requires technology of a sort that they don’t want to get involved with. [Laughs.] So that’s literally, genuinely, the one inroad where they open the doors to another set coming in to do their work. Demetrius came from that; his name and his profession came from that man we met, who did work in Indian motels.

An altercation with soldiers in Uganda also helped inspire certain scenes, and you were in a car accident in Greenwood that you turned into Mina and Demetrius’s first meeting. When you experience those things, what makes you think, This could be something in a movie?
Sometimes I don’t know immediately. But we amass this information literally like social scientists, and then we discuss. That’s what Sooni’s wonderful bravery is. She can see, Oh, it’s cleaning carpets that we have to get into. I may not see that. We had that experience of a car blindsiding us, and we then learned about the hustling guy who comes in and says, “You gotta get that guy’s insurance.” But the Kinnu case with the police and so on, those were stories we had been told or read.

And in terms of the soldiers, the scene that begins the film, with Jay and Okelo [Konga Mbandu] going home and the soldiers saying, “Africa is for Africans, Black Africans,” that came from my experience. I went to Uganda to research and spent a week there. Mahmood was showing us around and everything, and amid a sense of love — that I didn’t want to admit, but it was growing — I remember suddenly being stopped by the soldiers. There were roadblocks everywhere. Getting out at 2 a.m. into the bush was routine there, but it was not routine for me. And just that feeling of silent, unpredictable terror is something I brought into the beginning of the film.

It was also full of other people’s lived experience. In that bus scene to the airport, where Kinnu gets taken off the bus, I put in all members of the Ugandan Asian community who had returned to Uganda, just as extras in the bus. And among them, right behind Kinnu and Jay, were my mother- and father-in-law. They had never been in movies, and it took about two days to shoot that scene in the rain, with the soldiers and this and that. They had to sit in the bus for eight, ten hours, and my mother-in-law on the second day, she came to me with folded hands and said, “Mira, you change your story. Tell them that Idi Amin had killed those two old people because, you know, this moviemaking is even harder than the actual expulsion. During the actual expulsion, we went in our Mercedes to the airport, we left the keys in the car, and we got on the plane. This is more difficult than that. So please, can Idi Amin just kill us off in your movie?” [Laughs.] I will never forget that. And now I see both of them there, and it makes us very happy. They are both gone, but I will never forget that second morning.

Cinéma vérité is so observational. When in your life was the first time you thought, or you realized, you were an observer of people and an observer of life? Was that in your childhood, or was that something that happened at Harvard when you became a photographer and started pursuing film?
Well, cinéma vérité, firstly I would say that it’s not so much only an observer. It’s an observer with engagement. You don’t really get to know a person just by looking at them. If that were the case, I would have remained a photographer. But I was not that, because I had to get involved with people. I think it comes from actually my childhood, right from the beginning. My mother used to joke, “Mira goes running in the morning, and she comes back with the milkman.” [Laughs.] Meaning I would meet the milkman on his way with his route, and I would start talking to him. I still do that. Yesterday I was talking to my Syrian Uber driver. I engage with people, I love people, and I love to know their stories — people who are not in our drawing rooms, in our living rooms.

That is something that is so palpable in growing up as I did, which is we lived cheek by jowl with those who have and those who have not. Cheek by jowl. We had a cook and a this and a that, and they all lived in the quarters behind our home where they have children, and I grew up with those children being my friends until such time as class intervened and we had to go to school and they didn’t, for instance. But it was always in my life. That inequity also gave me great fire to pursue these folks who in so many ways made life work, but in other ways, we would not know them. It was a very small town. This was my reality.

That’s what cinéma vérité gave me after photography. Photography I loved because it was teaching me how to see; it was the sacredness of every frame and the joy of making frames. But still, it was observational only. What cinéma vérité taught me from early on was how to get engaged within the frame. That’s what I pursued for seven pure years in making documentaries, from India Cabaret and so on, until I found myself in the editing rooms of those films wanting to create and shape a story being unfolded — which is what you don’t know in cinéma vérité, how the story is unfolding. And often it’s very interesting and much more powerful sometimes than fiction. But I found myself wanting to shape it in a way, and that’s what led me to make Salaam Bombay! in a fiction way, but based on documentary reality. So many people still think it’s a documentary, but it’s so not. It’s completely set up and cast and all of that, but it has to have the electricity of documentary in a sense, with the aesthetics and the light and the story of what became narrative. That, in hindsight, became a kind of style or signature that has propelled me still.

Mira Nair directing Mississippi Masala, with cinematographer Edward Lachman. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Can you tell me about the moment Sarita and Denzel met, and how you knew they were the right match?
The moment they met was at 225 Lafayette Street, in downtown New York, in my modest one-room office. I was doing a rehearsal with them just to meet them, and I had always kept Denzel informed of that search for who would play Mina. I never asked his permission in that sense, but I used to tell him where we were at. But I had really fallen for Sarita based on these four pages of modeling assignments that I had seen her in — just a wild, kind of ravishing creature who was unvain. I was struck by her, and then I met her in London with Susie Figgis, our casting director. But first I showed Denzel those photographs, before I met her. And he was definitely intrigued. But he was very unassuming. He didn’t say this or that, nothing about it; he just took it in.

And she is just wonderful in the sense that she’s not somebody who is just agog with other stars. She’s very self-possessed. She didn’t even want to be an actor when I met her. She was a film student, studying theory. So there was no hankering that I could sense, which was great, because that never helps anyone. They met, and they read, and it was very comfortable and not a strain in any way. And of course they looked amazing together, which was incredibly good. I knew that, but it was nice to see.

It was, I would say, formal. It was not at all backslapping, Oh my God, I love you kind of nonsense. It was a lovely, professional, and easygoing meeting. For a couple of hours, we went through the script; we talked. It was not really acting in a full-on sense at all. It was just a reading of the script, with anything that emerged from it. And you know, in the film, you can see it. Sarita has that sort of very good etiquette; she’s not going to push. But yet she is who she is, and she has that respect for the other person. It’s a way we’re raised. I think you know what I mean.

Yes, I do.
Tameez, we call it in our language.

In Farsi, it’s taarof. There’s a little bit of etiquette, a little bit of distance. You can be intrigued, but it’s not really right to invite yourself into their space.
Exactly. Exactly. Or to be forward. There’s no forwardness.

I think that’s why I love the phone-call scene and why it remains so erotic. They’re both unclothed, but the conversation is still very polite.
[Laughs.] Yes. “What are you wearing?” We still joke about it.

What did you want out of their performances in that scene? Were they actually on the phone together?
I wanted exactly what you said, for exactly that reason: taarof or tameez. We cannot reveal ourselves fully when we meet, but of course it’s such a beautiful revelation to have that tameez. Yes, they were actually talking to each other. And it was exactly about how you have seen it, which is that you reveal yourself because you can. There’s no one else there. It’s just the phone. And yet the phone, and the breaths on the phone rather than the words, are about just a longing and a desire, without it being icky or pornographic in any way. It’s really about longing and desire, and youth, frankly — the fun of it. It’s that, “What are you wearing?” “A T-shirt.” “We have so much in common.” You find this fun in it so that you can reveal yourself even more. It was completely filmed as an erotic scene, as a love scene — a longing scene, I would say, which was definitely about sex and tenderness. But this was just the early days, in that scene.

It was beautiful, actually, because Sarita is also a deeply honest performer. There’s no falsity in her. And especially in those first days, there was no knowledge of how she might appear. There was no self-consciousness in that sense. She really trusted me. She was like — she is — a younger sister to me. We had just met, but she was very safe, I think, in my hands. And with Denzel, he was a pro. But he heard me as to what I looked for in him. It was tough to do that part of it, because he’s never been asked to do that, really, and he hasn’t done that ever since — that vulnerability.

I’m curious about the first kiss scene. There are these very long takes where they’re just talking to each other, and there are no edits. What did you want to accomplish through that uninterruption?
I was just there, when I was in Baton Rouge. I took a train to Greenwood and I lived a weekend there, just going down old pathways, and that bayou is in Sumner, Mississippi, just about 40 minutes from Greenwood. It’s across the street, literally across the street, from my friend Maude Schuyler Clay, the wonderful photographer, her home. And that’s where I found that bayou. In fact, there’s a picture of me shooting that scene that Maude showed me just a month ago. It was kind of nuts.

I am a student of seeing how other people do this — love scenes, kissing scenes, or whatever — and very rarely do I believe them because they are all so cut to smithereens to do this angle, and that angle, and this angle, when kissing is kissing. Kissing is the yearning for contact in this particular way, and it’s never smooth or aesthetic. It is kind of what it is, and it is about establishing that energy between two people. I conceived the bayou walk as a one take, and when they kiss, to kind of move into it and work with what they were doing rather than, Oh, let me do this angle, and then you come from there.

The love scene later was done more in that constructed fashion, but not this scene. And also, when I’m shooting, when I think that the scene has ended, I don’t say “cut” immediately. Because I think they imagine that the “cut” is going to be called, but then they reveal themselves much more purely as they think that the work is done. I always find in that window a lot, especially with kids or people who are not fettered by form. They just are themselves, which is kind of what Sarita was and is in many ways. Maybe Denzel less so, because he knows the form. So I always let that moment keep going to see what it then reveals. You might pull away from that person; you might look at that person and say, “My God, did we really do that?” Whatever expression it is, it’s very genuine. Especially in the case of, as they call them, nonactors. That’s why I think it went on so long, because it was very pure. There was something very affecting about that. Even the pauses between them are very just like it is in life, and then you begin to believe them, I think. That’s my feeling or hope.

That’s my sense about the sex scene as well. Yes, there are a lot of edits because that is how sex scenes are constructed in general. But the shots that we do get are very long: her leg is running down his leg, his hand is moving along her thigh. There are these moments where I think, Should I be watching this?
[Laughs.] Oh, God.

But it’s so tender at the same time! I bought their relationship. How did Sarita and Denzel react to the uninterrupted takes?
It was the last scene to shoot in the film. It was in Biloxi. I put it at the end of the schedule because you want them to really know each other by then. I must say that they were in that beautiful, formal, tameez relationship throughout. They didn’t hang out together, they didn’t do any of that. I think they genuinely respected and liked each other, but it was quite a formal thing. It was a good vibe. That last day, we shot it in two interconnected motel rooms. The three of us were in one while Ed was lighting the actual room that they would shoot in. It was the last day of shooting, and Denzel had ordered crawfish gumbo for the crew. We were having that crawfish, and I think we had Champagne? I don’t recall that so much.

Anyway, it was a really good mood between us that I kept praying would be preserved when we started shooting. I was playing it all cool and harmonious, but actually, I was thinking, Come on, Ed, finish your lighting. Let’s take this mood across to the bed! But Ed took his time. And at one point, Sarita and Denzel were both lying on the bed and talking about how it would be. And Sarita reminded me that I jumped into the middle of the two of them in bed. Not in the location bed, but in the other bed. And I still do my love scenes kind of that way. I make a very easy environment — I’m not easy inside, but I hope you don’t know that — and I pray that the mood will be sustained. I was literally in between them in a twin bed. We were not all actively cuddling, but pretty much cuddling. Those days, there were no texts, but I thought, Come on, Ed. Come on, Ed. Let’s get these two people in that room! I just wanted to keep that lovely mood of openness and non-ickiness and non-self-consciousness, basically. And then when we got to the bed, the real bed, everything was set up. The track was set up. We just had to transfer the mood to that bed.

That scene was choreographed. I was on the dolly with Ed, and it was just us, the two of us, and the two of them. I would be directing, “Go this way, go that way.” I would just make these gestures to Ed for the movement, but I would tell them, “Denzel, take your arm, go up,” and “Now kiss.” It was a narration, a full narration. [Laughs.] The things we do, oh my God. It was always designed to that song, “Kanda Ya Nini” by the Papy Tex Group, that I adore, and also was a song from my love affair. And I was playing that song constantly, even in the previous room — it’s a wonderful song, I think — so that mood was created. And that’s how we did it: very delicately, and very quietly. It was all about the sustaining of that good mood.

Was the ending always that Mina and Demetrius leave Greenwood? That still shocks me. I think a more conventional film would have them stay, and both communities accept them, and everything is happy.
You know, that’s what we saw in Mississippi, and I still see that in Mississippi. Anyone different — not just the race issue, not just the profession — anything, you have to leave. And it’s also that South/North thing. For us to challenge who we are, that was like, “Get out of here.” That’s alive and well. I’ve just spent many months in the South, and I’ve seen that. You can come back, but you have to leave to create a new way. Now I don’t recall how we came up with that ending exactly, but I recall we came up with it because we saw it around us.

My partner is white, and that was a big deal to my parents, who are Iranian. I think a lot about Mina’s scene where she says of Demetrius, “I love him. That’s not a crime.” It makes me think that love can be a radical act and push us toward rebellion in a way nothing else might.
It depends on who you fall for. And love, mixed with race — I know bringing home a white person, yeah, it’s slightly shocking. But it’s much more acceptable because the white folks still have the superiority thing going on in our part of the world. But if you bring a Black person into the home? Until they find the humanity of that person, he’s seen only as a Black person, especially at that time.

Now I’m actually trying to make a little bit of a sequel, not to Mississippi, but again, about a Black-brown relationship. It’s a slightly different vibe, although the rooted idea about race is still there, very much so.

This film was made 30 years ago, and so many aspects of it still resonate now. Do you personally think the hierarchy of color is something we can ever —?
Transcend? [Pauses.] I personally believe that it is transcendable. I don’t even actually think of it, because I live it. And now I’ve lived, what, 32 years in Uganda? And I have a life there, not just in making films, but in making a school and in making a whole community there that I belong to. I don’t see the color of our skins, frankly. And maybe because of the paths I’ve chosen, where I’m not being an Asian there, but I’m being really a filmmaker and a person of the community there because of what I’ve done in Queen of Katwe, all of that — I definitely live in the zone in which these lines are no longer there. Maybe it is naïve. Maybe it’s a rare thing. [Pauses.] It is, it is. But I can tell you that I feel very much that is utterly transcendable. It’s how we choose to see the world, and how we choose to treat the world and allow the world to treat us.

What do you think brown people, Black people, people who do not match the dominant whiteness of cinema should be asking for from “representation” onscreen? 
I think we should be looking past the emblematic. We are not emblems. And that’s what I mean about my experience in Uganda, or anywhere. You cut to the chase, you distill the human condition. We should not have to explain. People force us to explain because we are so rare onscreen that we’ve got to do it all. Right from the beginning, while making India Cabaret, a film on strippers, people would come and say, “What portrait of India are you showing? We have the Taj Mahal, we have this, we have that.” But the problem was there was so little about us, whatever little there was had to show it all. That’s not possible and should not be. In that sense, I mean we should not be emblematic. We should be way past that.

That’s what I admire so much about American cinema. Like Licorice Pizza: It’s about first love in the Valley, and it’s very specific about that. They had the confidence that this too matters. We have to have that confidence, and be given that confidence, to go beyond the emblem. We are real, flesh-and-blood folks like anyone else, and our stories must show that. But because we are so rare, we are always put in that little box of, What is this? Is it this, or is it that? Sometimes we are written about like that: “This is a spicy dislocation of cultures” versus “It’s a radical story about race.” You know what I mean? It’s reductive. I look at Mississippi Masala and I think, Man, it was radical then, and it is still radical now. Our worlds are hybrid and alive and fluid. Not many have gone there since.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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