There’s a scene halfway through “Mississippi Masala,” where Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury are just talking.
They’re both lying in their respective beds, a phone cradled to their ears. His hands fiddle with the bottom of his shirt, exposing a soft belly. Hers absentmindedly run through her hair; the camera pans down her legs.
The two characters — Washington’s Demetrius and Choudhury’s Mina — are miles apart in the scene, nowhere near touching. Still, the tension is arresting.
“The one thing I’m consistently hearing now is that it is amongst the sexiest films of all time,” director Mira Nair told CNN with a laugh. “And everyone is kind of unanimous about discussing the phone scene.”
Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” first released in 1991, became somewhat of a cult classic — but in recent years, actually finding a copy of the film was difficult. Now, Criterion Collection has released a 4K digital restoration of the film supervised by Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman. The film is also in the midst of a national theatrical rollout, exposing it to new audiences across the country.
The premise of “Mississippi Masala” is both simple and complex. At its core, the film is a love story between a young Indian woman born in Uganda and an African-American carpet-cleaner who has never left Mississippi. But Nair uses this love story to draw attention to some difficult realities: pointing out colorism, racism, anti-Blackness, classism and xenophobia across races, while also asking hard questions of humanity and identity.
After all, what does it mean to be from a place? What is home? What is belonging? What is race? Somehow, “Mississippi Masala” digs into all of it — and does so while deftly evading any semblance of sermonizing.