Mississippi Masala: Breaking Hollywood’s Asian Stereotypes
By Charles Lee
Being ignored is infuriated. Being misrepresented can be even worse. Yet that is what Hollywood does with Asian Americans who, although they comprise on of the fastest growing portions of the American population, continually find themselves either ignored or stereotyped in certain roles whose collective influence is to give them a dehumanized identity. Hollywood’s problem in acknowledging the demographic reality of America is something to which any black, Hispanic, or Native American can attest, but fortunately, there have been positive developments in the last few years with the success of films like John Singleton’s Boyz N’ The Hood and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, both of which give the black community center stage and address realities of black life. This year, Asians can look to Mississippi Masala, the latest project of Indian director Mira Nair (whose directorial debut Saloom Bombay was an Academy Award nominee in 1989 for Best Foreign Film). In this interracial romance between an Asian Indian woman and a black man in a small Southern town, the viewers are brought into the uncharted territory of an Asian American community and are faced with a rare, detailed look at the racial diversity this country offers.
The setting of Masala is Greenwood, Mississippi. There, Asian Indians are a prominent minority in a community mostly populated by blacks and whites. Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is a young Indian woman in her twenties, working for her father Jay (Roshan Seth) who helps manage his nephew Anil’s hotel, while her mother Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) runs a neighborhood liquor store. While borrowing Anil’s car, Mina accidentally rear-ends a van belonging to Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a young black man who operates a carpet cleaning service. This crash serves as their initial introduction; a later encounter in a night club marks the beginning of their relationship, which blossoms until Mina’s busybody relatives discover them together in bed.
Intertwined with the development of the love story is an examination of the Indian community. Under Nair’s direction, Asians are actually real people, free of the elusive, mysterious quality so prevalent in the stereotype. At Anil’s wedding ceremony, for instance, against the background of traditional rites and sitar music, beyond the bindi marks and women’s saris, are the other realities of the community: friends gossiping, little kids playing cops and robbers, faces whose expressions range from anticipation to utter boredom. The details are small, but they add dimension to a community whose principle exposure in American cinema has been as intensely religious (the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and/or excessively fatalistic (the professor in A Passage to India.) Even more depth is to be found in Mina, a young woman who loves her family and respects her culture but needs her parents to understand that in America, she faces a different set of situations than they did, the most obvious being her non-Indian lover. A clash of cultural values familiar to Asian Americans, her story has a welcome presence on the big screen. Although Mina lapses into a trite love-can-conquer-all mentality that makes her situation look like another episode of youthful rebellion near the end of Mississippi Masala, the depth of her character, so rare for an Asian role, is nonetheless important.
Missississippi Masala breaks the trend of American films which tend to perpetuate the general stereotype of Asians as a mysterious, almost inaccessible people. A good example of this is the 80’s hit, The Karate Kid. There we find an old Japanese man (Pat Morita) who is so serene, so wise, and so spiritually balanced, that much of the story’s humor is drawn from the curiosity of his younger Caucasian friend (Ralph Maccio) who, in imitation, tries catching a fly with chopsticks, indulges in the spiritual exercise of bonsai tree-trimming and, of course, learns karate. This image of serenity and spiritual wisdom, positive characteristics in themselves, is damaging. When compounded with other stereotypes – e.g., the submissive and exotic female, the passive and weak male – Asians end up as dehumanized, and are rendered less understandable, less real.
From its early years, Hollywood has had a predilection for certain Asian stereotypes. The image exemplified by Pat Morita in The Karate Kid can trace its origins to Charlie Chan, a character that spawned a whole series of films from the 1930s through the 1950s with a final appearance on television in the early 1970s. played by a variety of Caucasian actors, Charlie Chan was a blatant stereotype who spouted embarrassing aphorisms, popularizing the well-known "Confucius say" phrase, and perpetuated the accompanying physical image of a slightly bowing man with folded hands (Paik). The 1930s also created another influential character, Fu Manchu, a diabolical man who became the prototype for the Asian villain, which in recent years has had notable exposure in movies about organized crime like The Year of the Dragon and Black Rain, which deal respectively with the Chinese and Japanese mafia.
Yet the movies that feature these kinds of roles or situations cannot be summarily dismissed as inferior, unworthy, or completely inaccurate. The Karate Kid, for instance, was a good movie. Morita’s character, although a bit stereotyped, was a major asset due to its warmth and depth. More problematic os something like Black Rain. On a superficial level the stylish cinematography serves only to emphasize the exoticness of the Japanese culture, particularly its mafia. Moreover, the confusion and frustration of the main character, played by Michael Douglas, seems to be a constant reminder of the foreignness of the culture that he is in. yet the presence of a director like Ridley Scott, whose credits include ground-breaking films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise, suggests that there is a deeper level beyond the appearances, that his use of seemingly stereotyped roles has a more artistic purpose. This is essentially an argument of artistic license. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, for instance, was criticized for its depiction of the Vietnamese in which Vietnamese soldiers ruthlessly forced American POWs to play Russian roulette while they made their bets. Cimino simply said that the story really was not about Vietnam, but about the friendship of the Caucasian soldiers, for which Vietnam served as a metaphor and a background. Unfortunately, the reality is that with so few Asians on the screen, the continual use of certain roles, however plausible they may be on an individual level or for whatever artistic purpose they are used, has the inevitable effect of creating a limiting, stereotyped image. Casting Asians in villainous, negative roles would not be such a problem if Asians enjoyed a wider exposure in cinema of which villains were only a part. Unfortunately, Asians get few roles, and many are similar. Filmmaker Irvin Paik once wrote, "Producers of films and televisions that blatantly parade stereotype have defended their creations by saying that white people are depicted in degrading situations also. That’s true, but for every bad white image, there are ten good ones to shift the balance. Whereas a single caricature of a white person is accepted as an exaggerated truth, a stereotype is often accepted as the whole and complete truth about all Asians" (Paik). While blatant stereotypes of Asians a la Charlie Chan are not as common as they were before, stereotypical roles are.
Considerations like this make Mississippi Masala a refreshing treat because we are afforded a look at different faces in an Asian American community: the happy, the sad, the jealous, the discontented. Nair, however, does more than simply give an Asian minority depth and humanness; she tackles the even broader subject of its interaction with the rest of the population, and in a surprising way. Instead of the more expected situation of how the Asian Indians must deal with the dominant white culture, Masala looks at how two minorities (black and Indian) deal with each other. This situation finds its clearest expression when Anil’s uncle, who owns the motels that Demetrius cleans, talks to Demetrius about Mina’s collision into his van. Hoping to avoid a lawsuit, he speaks of how in America suing each other serves only to divide people: "Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto-Rican – all the same. As long as you’re not white it means you’re colored… all of us people of color must stick together." The obvious implication is that minorities, their positions precarious, have more to gain by standing with each other than by quarreling with each other. After Demetrius, his partner Tyrone, and the uncle talk some more over tea, with a cheerful toast of "power of the people," Demetrius tells him not to worry, that he has no intention to sue, but his decision seems to rest mostly on his feelings for Mina, who he had met again the night before at a dance club and was planning on inviting to dinner.
Having preferred to limit the racial issue as strictly a black-white affair, rarely has film dealt with the question of relations between minorities. But on some occasions the cinema has had its surprises as evidenced by Spike Lee’s provocative Do the Right Thing, which offers several points of comparison to Mississippi Masala. The setting in Lee’s film is a predominantly black-Hispanic neighborhood of New York on the hottest day of summer (a rather obvious symbol of racial tension), where the two main businesses are a grocery store owned by a Korean and a pizzeria owned by Sal, an Italian American. Sal is generally popular in the neighborhood, while the Korean, largely suspicious of his black customers and not fluent in English, is very much disliked; ironically, Sal’s pizzeria is eventually burned down in a race riot, while the Korean grocery remains untouched. Lee, in an interview in Rolling Stone, said, "Sal’s pizzeria represents everything, and that’s why [Mookie, the black protagonist] lashed out against it. It was Mayor Koch, it was the cops – everything" (Rolling Stone). But if Sal’s pizzeria is seen as part of the white establishment, obviously the Korean’s store is not. Indeed, after burning down Sal’s pizzeria, angry rioters approach the Korean grocery store, but the Korean yells at them, "I black!" Surprised, the rioters pause. The Korean continues, saying, "You, me, same." There is some relieved laughter among the crowd, and a potentially violent situation is avoided. The immediate message seems to be what Masala initially indicates: unity among minorities is necessary because all minorities are ‘black’ in their oppression.
Neither film, however, reduces minority relations to this simple equation. After all, there are certain doubts about the seriousness or the validity of a statement suggesting that all people of color really have so much in common with each other. The Korean merchant and his black clients seem to share only an oppressive economic situation; would an upperclass Korean doctor be so willing to say, "I’m black, too"? How realistic is minority unity, and what exactly does it entail? The feelings of unity and mutual blackness in Do the Right Thing, for instance, are fleeting. By the morning after the riot, life has returned to normal, minus a pizzeria, and the future is uncertain. Although we do not actually see it, in all likelihood the hostility between the Korean grocery and its black clientele will resume its course. Similarly, in Masala, the exact nature of ideal minority relations is left open-ended. The unity spoken of early on are empty words, consisting not in any active political unity, but at best in a mere avoidance of mutual antagonism, i.e. "you don’t bother us, we don’t bother you." The community in Mississippi Masala, at first glance harmonious and relatively free of racial tension, is really three separate communities – black, white, and Asian Indian – whose interaction is primarily economic, and the fragility of that bond is apparent when the love relationship between Demetrius and Mina is exposed, creating a scandal in the Indian community that causes Demetrius to lose his Indian clients, even the one who once spoke of the need to "stick together." The cultural obstacles are apparent in Tyrone’s words to Demetrius: "You’d better leave those fucking foreigners alone, they’re nothing but trouble. ‘United we stand, divided we fall,’ ain’t that a bitch. ‘And if you’re caught in bed with one of their daughters, your ass is going to swing.’" Although Demetrius and Mina end up leaving Greenwood together with the presumption of continuing their relationship, no real answers are given for future prospects in the community they have left behind.
Mississippi Masala is not perfect – there are cliches in the dialogue, the pace sometimes drags, and some of the acting, notably Choudhury’s, is at times a it leaden. But it is an extremely significant film. Too often, Hollywood has been content with certain generalized portraits of Asian characters in the rare times there are Asian characters, and for a film to devote so much of itself to Asian Americans is cause for celebration. Sadly, the reality is that a movie like Mississippi Masala has a limited audience; it has not been the commercial hit that Boyz N’ the Hood was, and corporate Hollywood has its own capitalistic obligation to follow the money. There is something of a catch-22; Asians will find the best roles in movies dealing specifically with their communities, but realistically the exposure of such films will most likely be limited to the communities they represent. Ideally Asians will find a variety of roles in films with diverse audiences, but as long as there is media attention on the latest film that provides insightful Asian characterizations, it only means that there is still a long way to go.
Irvin Paik, "A Look at the Caricatures of the Asians as Sketched by American movies," Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian Americans, Ed. Emma Gee, The Regents of the University of California, 1976, p. 32-34.
Rolling Stone, Issue 608/609, July 11-25, 1991, p. 66.