Sarita Choudhury, the 25-year-old star of Mississippi Masala, has an astonishingly ripe erotic presence. Everything about her — full lips and cheeks, flashing eyes, verging — on-zaftig body-is flush with sensuality; she looks like an Indian version of Carré Otis. Yet she’s no dazed ingenue. Her sexiness is set off by a delicate, reflective temperament, a quiet awareness of what’s going on around her. The movie pairs her with Denzel Washington, who has become the reigning black-male sex symbol of his generation. Washington is fashion-model handsome, with a body that’s a lean, athletic dream (during a preview, a brief shot of his butt was enough to set off screams among half the women in the audience). His appeal, though, is rooted in the beckoning gentleness of his stare. When he smiles, exposing a slight overbite, he radiates seductive ardor rather than narcissism.
Mississippi Masala is a charming and exuberant interracial romance, a neo-realist West Side Story. Directed by Mira Nair, the gifted Indian-American who debuted with 1988’s Salaam Bombay!, the film makes no great claims for itself, yet it reminds you that one of the primal pleasures in all of moviegoing is simply sitting back and watching two people this soulfully good — looking fall in love with each other.
Choudhury plays Mina, an only child whose family was kicked out of Idi Amin’s Uganda in the early ’70s. For the past few years, Mina has lived in the small town of Greenwood, Miss., where her folks run a liquor store, and where she herself has become proudly Americanized. Washington plays Demetrius, an honorable, industrious fellow who grew up in Greenwood and now runs his own carpet-cleaning business.
As long as Nair follows the two characters’ romantic moves or details the lives of their families (whose contrasting status on the ethnic-minority ladder marks them as both rivals and uneasy comrades), the movie is funny, observant, and deeply humane. When the affair is discovered, though, the ensuing discord feels hokey and melodramatic. Demetrius is shunned by the entire white community — the result of blurry manipulations by Mina’s Indian acquaintances. In a matter of days, he can’t find a carpet to clean. I didn’t believe any of this, but the actors are so winning that it’s easy to forgive the rather rigged plot. Choudhury and Washington achieve an unforced intimacy. And as good as these two are, they’re quietly overpowered by Roshan Seth’s performance as Mina’s father, a man who has spent 20 years enduring the ache of exile. As he struggles to recover not merely his property in Uganda but his lost feelings of brotherhood, Seth acts with undiluted anger and tenderness, conveying a lifetime’s heartbreak in a single doleful glance. B+