“Mississippi Masala” director Mira Nair says she was nervous to ask Denzel Washington to be more vulnerable in his scenes with Sarita Choudhury in the swooningly romantic 1991 drama.
“I fell in love during the making of this film during the writing of the screenplay of this film,” Nair recalled at a Women in Film screening Thursday night at Vidiots. “I experienced what I call the stupor of love. I was really weak-kneed,” she said in a post-screening Q&A. “And that was what I wanted from Denzel and Sarita. Sarita got it, but Denzel… no one talks to him like that,” she said with a smile.
She had hired because of his turn in 1988’s “For Queen and Country,” and said he was nailing every other aspect of the role. “He’s a consummate actor. He is just extraordinary. But when it came to the love stuff, I was wanting more. I went to his trailer and said, ‘You might think I’m an insanely sentimental female, but this is what I want.’”
She continued, “He was, I think, quite impressed with my candor. After that, I got it from him and there was no problem. But actually, it is the only time that he has played this way. He tells me himself that this is the only time where he had that vulnerability, and completely let his guard down.”
Getting a film without a white lead character was a challenge, Nair said of the chilly reception she got from the head of Orion Studios at the time.
“They heard the pitch and said, ‘Well, Mira, can you just make room for a white protagonist?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘I can promise you, sir, that all of the waiters in this film will be white.’ And you know, he laughed, I laughed, and I was shown the door. But the movie got made,” she said as the audience applauded.
“Now we are in a different time, but oddly enough, I’ve really not seen not many any Black and brown movies, in the 30 years that we made this,” said Nair. “So, I think that we have to change that.”
The film also marked the debut of “And Just Like That” star Choudhury, who had never acted before. Nair spotted her in a photo and tracked her down in London, thanks to casting director Susie Figgis. Her instincts about Choudhury were proven right, as the onscreen chemistry between her and Washington is still scorching.
“There’s an alchemy of some kind of truth that happens,” she said of combining actors and non-actors, as she did in her previous, Oscar-nominated film, “Salaam Bombay!” “I love it, because it creates a kind of unexpected electricity.”
The film was lost for many years and even Nair did not have a copy until a lone print was found in Nashville in 2020. Last year, it received a 4k digital restoration from Criterion and had a theatrical rerelease.
Nair other films include “Monsoon Wedding” and “Queen of Katwe” and she adapted Vikram Seth’s novel “A Suitable Boy” for Netflix in 2020.
“I don’t wait for the market to tell me what I should be doing next,” she said of being told that no one has ever heard of the subject of her next film, Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil. “The market has to come to you or you have to create the market for it. So I’ll do it and then see whether you like it.”