Film Flashback: Mississippi Masala

“Mississippi Masala,” a romantic drama filmed in Mississippi about the experiences of an Indian-American family living in Greenwood, is a film ripe for rediscovery.

Audiences will be able to do just that, as the film recently underwent a 30th anniversary restoration for a limited theatrical re-release and blu-ray release by The Criterion Collection on May 24.

The film features several real-life Mississippi locations, as it was shot mainly in Greenwood, with additional scenes in Grenada, Biloxi and Ocean Springs. But like with many films of a 30-plus year vintage, many of those locations aren’t the same.

Featured prominently is the historic Greenwood restaurant Lusco’s, a fixture on Carrollton Avenue since the 1930s that sadly closed its doors in November. It was famed for its private dining rooms separated by curtains and it is said those rooms were a remnant of the Prohibition era that allowed patrons to discreetly enjoy illicit libations with their dinners.

Another major location is the exterior of the Motel Monte Cristo that was located on Highway 51 in Grenada. It also housed a restaurant that was a favorite of weary travelers since its opening post-WWII. The original structure suffered a fire in the early ‘80s and was rebuilt as seen in the film. The motel was shuttered for good in the ‘90s.

Several interiors were shot at Greenwood locations, one of which is now the site of the Alluvian Hotel, one of the Delta’s most posh accommodations and an anchor of downtown Greenwood. It opened in 2003, rebuilt from the bones of the site’s historic Irving Hotel that opened in 1917.

Lastly, once the action moves to the coast, the film features several shots of a pre-Katrina Beach Boulevard and of Biloxi Beach. It’s an interesting snapshot of the past compared to the bustling and revitalized Gulf Coast of today.

The film was also shot in Kampala, Uganda, where the family lives before they are displaced by Idi Amin’s rule and settle in Greenwood. It’s the only film ever shot in both Mississippi and Uganda.

“Mississippi Masala” was a critic’s darling with a successful festival run that included its U.S. premiere as an opening night selection at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.  But its February 5, 1992, U.S. theatrical release was overshadowed by more mainstream fare, namely “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Wayne’s World”.

Today it may be hard to believe that a film with Denzel Washington top-billed would fail to find its audience, but he had just begun his ascent to Hollywood megastar. The film came on the heels of his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in the 1989 Civil War epic “Glory” opposite Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.  “Masala” is a rarity in Washington’s career, being his only lead role in a romance. The film itself was a rarity for the time as well, being a wide-released romance starring people of color.

The film was the acting debut of co-star Sarita Choudhury, who has gone on to a busy career, most recently with a recurring role on the “Sex and the City” sequel series “And Just Like That…” on HBO. It also stars prolific character actor Charles S. Dutton, who later appeared in 1996’s “A Time to Kill,” shot in Canton, and 1999’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” shot in Holly Springs. And veteran actor Joe Seneca, who plays Denzel’s father, was no stranger to filming in Mississippi, as he appeared in 1986’s “Crossroads” (shot in Greenville, Natchez, Vicksburg and Port Gibson), and later joined the cast of “A Time to Kill” as well.

The director Nair, who was born in India, has said she came up with the idea for the film’s story when she was scouting for another film in the south. She was struck by the fact that many of the hotels she stayed at were owned by Indian-American entrepreneurs and wondered how their families came to settle in the area. Even today, many of the accommodations in the Delta are owned and operated by Indian-American businesspersons. Also, Washington’s character, the charming carpet cleaner Demitrius Williams, was inspired by a real-life carpet cleaner named Demitrius that Nair met while scouting in Mississippi.

“Mississippi Masala” is rated R. It is available on blu-ray and DVD.