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Talking with Mira Nair

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When Mira Nair was shooting Mississippi Masala, her racially diverse cast and crew took over the Ramada Inn in Greenwood, Miss. After work, nobody closed his door. People drifted from room to room along with the aroma of Indian food cooking on portable stoves. Nair herself delivered a six-pack of beer to anyone who had contributed a good idea that day. ”The technicians from Hollywood had never seen anything like it,” says Nair, 35. ”But it’s the only way I know how to make a movie.”

A taste for exotic mixtures has proved successful for Nair, who grew up in a small town in the Indian city of Orissa, got her education at Harvard, and then made four documentary films. Her first feature, Salaam Bombay!, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1989. Now, Mississippi Masala is winning audiences with its story of a black-Indian romance (between Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury) that is as sensually pleasing as the mix of spices referred to in the film’s title. ”I chose seemingly obscure places — someone leaving Uganda for Mississippi — but I aspired to strike a universal chord,” says Nair. ”And that’s what I’m hearing. A man told me, ‘It makes me think of Kansas, of what I left behind when I moved to Manhattan.”’

In Kampala, Uganda, where she now lives with her husband and son (in the hilltop home that appears in the movie), Nair created a theater space in which to show Masala to the locals. Overwhelming popularity kept it open four weeks. ”The movies Ugandans see are always about other people, never themselves,” she says. ”But these voices and stories were their own.” All the voices in Masala resonate in familiar ways, no matter the race or nationality. As Nair puts it: ”It gets under people’s skin.”

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