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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

How Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala changed my life.

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

I've been doing a #30DayFilmChallenge, and day 20 is a 'Film that changed your life'. It was a tough one as I couldn't initially recall a pivotal film that in some way 'changed me'. So, I've been mulling over key moments or decisions in my life that were in some way linked to film, which led me to the films of Mira Nair.

I was doing my A Level in Film Studies at Redbridge College (from 1991-1993), and one of the four pieces of coursework we had to submit was on an indpendent film director. It came time to choose a director, my lecturer suggested Peter Greenaway, but I wasn't convinced. I was keen to write about a woman. But back in 1991/1992 there were few on my radar, even the film we saw for 'Independent Feminist Film' was directed by a man!

Then on 26 February 1992, I went to see Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) at the cinema and loved it. I'd found my subject, the only problem my tutor forsaw was that she had only directed two feature films at that point. But, I was determined that I'd write about Mira Nair... Prior to Salaam Bombay! (1988) Nair had made some documentaries, and I wondered how I could find these.

REMEMBER 1992 was… Before Email. Before Social Media. Before the INTERNET!

So I wrote to Mira Nair at an address I found for her in Kuala Lumpur. Just over a month later I got a typed and signed reply from Mira Nair, in which she says how flattered she was that someone would want to write about her small body of work, and how I could get hold of copies of her early documentaries: Jama Street Masjid Journal (1979), So Far From India (1982), India Cabaret (1985) and Children of the Desired Sex (1987).

So with these four documentaries and the two feature films I set about writing what was my first in-depth piece of writing on a film director.

What mark did I get? 24/25 !!!

And now almost 30 years on, I have written or contributed to a number of books including the first book published on Jane Campion, which was revised and updated in 2018 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of The Piano (1993), and I have taught A Level Film Studies and contributed to an A Level Film Text Book. So I reckon that Mississippi Masala did change my life!

I have tried to track down my film tutor, Alan Barker, to thank him, but no luck.

I did get a chance to thank Mira Nair for her earlier kindness when I interviewed her for Desi Magazine for the release of 2001's Monsoon Wedding, I also reviewed the film for the now defunct website. I have added the review here, as it ran on the site back in 2002.

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Lilette Dubey, Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dubas, Sameer Arya, Vijay Raaz and Tilotama Shome

The Rain is coming … and so is the family, read the film poster’s tag line. For anyone involved in the organisation of an Indian wedding – these two events loom large, the first would spell disaster, the second – inevitable.

The Verma family are a middle class Punjabi family living in New Delhi, headed by the hapless father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) who, with his wife, Pimmi (Lilette Dubey) have arranged a marriage for their daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), to Hemant (Parvin Dubas), an engineer from Houston. As he flies over with his family to meet his bride and marry, she is busy coming to terms with the end of her affair with her married lover and boss, Vikram (Sameer Arya).

Lalit has hired a mobile phone wielding wedding planner, PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz), to ensure that all runs smoothly, but things soon start to fall to pieces, as Lalit’s penny-pinching and Dubey’s on-the-cheap approach soon manifest themselves in the collapse of the wedding’s central feature - a large marigold archway, an ominous start to the wedding celebrations. But Dubey soon has other distractions as he falls for the Verma family’s maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome).

With relatives flying in from all over the world, there soon develops a clash of cultures and families. As the four day and night build-up to the wedding unfolds, hidden secrets and new relationships threaten to disrupt the Verma’s most special day.

This is an ambitious film with five interwoven tales of love beautifully detailed here, whether it be the magic love of Alice or Dubey or the dysfunctional love or the kind of ‘old-shoe’ love, of the mother and father of the bride. The use of an unobtrusive hand-held camera, and the conditions they were working under, three weeks of rehearsal, followed by thirty days filming capture the ‘last minute’ nature of a hastily put together wedding. With its huge cast of speaking actors, over sixty at the last count, the audience, just like the groom, has to absorb all the relations, despite many being referred to as nick-names as well as their real names. With the dialogue swinging from Hindi to English, often mid sentence the film remains vibrant and passionate.

On one level this is a heart warming tale of old and new love coming together, the film shows us that love come blossom unexpectedly between those in an arranged marriage, and between two shy individuals. But on another it exposes the contradictions between rituals and reality, and smashes the perceived notion of sexuality and commerce in India by the Western world. The India here is vastly altered from the endless diet of Bollywood movies that are reaching our screens. The wedding planner is a social climber with a mobile phone, but falls for the innocent and shy maid, Alice, who he catches dressing up in her mistress’s jewellery. His mother, constantly harping on about his single status and her lack of grandchildren, spends her day playing the stock market. The father has to beg his golfing buddies for money to pay for the wedding, Aditi on the eve of her wedding to a man she barely knows has once last fling in the back of her lover’s 4x4. An Uncle’s disturbing history of child molestation comes to light and sexuality of modern Indian teenagers is examined.

Bright colours, and occasionally bursts of song and dance may on the surface seem to have all the hallmarks for a traditional Bollywood romp, but Mira Nair’s film is more than that; it captures the underlying changes in Indian culture. Despite some of the film’s darker themes, you will remain uplifted, with the film’s vibrancy and passion sweeping you along.

The haunting and evocative score for Monsoon Wedding conjures up images from the film and you will once again be swept along as Alice and PK fall in love to ‘Love and Marigolds’ and the Bollywood playback styled ‘Chunari Chunari’ will have you bopping away without realising you’re even grooving.

And here's the Interview in Desi...

And finally, here's the Mississippi Masala poster which is above the TV in my office. It was the first quad poster I had framed, so the film via this poster has been a constant in my life for almost 30 years.

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