There is a thin line between being earnestly fun and eye-roll inducing silly. It is hard to define exactly what makes the difference. Especially when actors are giving it their all and seem to be having a lot of fun making a film that they believe in, it feels cruel to judge. But Basmati Blues, the debut film of Dan Baron, is an awkward experience.
This is a full-throated musical fantasy, precisely the kind of film that can have a hard time towing that line. And it certainly comes with some charms: it is brightly colored, beautifully photographed, taking all the advantages of its rural Indian setting. It has its heart in the right place and with its musical trappings, joyously expresses the emotions on its sleeve.
But there is a disconnect. In trying to be a Bollywood-style production for an American audience, it has a an obvious inauthenticity. Basmati Blues thankfully doesn’t play its Bollywood style as tongue-in-cheek but I just couldn’t help but think of it as a lesser version. Maybe Basmati Blues can offer to be a gateway into Indian cinema for some. I would suggest just diving into one of the many Bollywood films you can see on Netflix -- that might be more of an abrasive experience for a newcomer, but it would undoubtedly offer a purer experience of the culture.
It isn’t a surprise that, despite being released this weekend, Basmati Blues was made in 2013 and has since sat on the proverbial shelf. It explains how this small, strange film landed an Oscar winner in the starring role. It also explains, to an extent, why the film feels so out of place and out of time. Usually films that are shelved for so long have some sort of trainwreck quality and Basmati Blues definitely has some trainwreck qualities. The thing is, Basmati Blues isn’t uninteresting or unwatchable. It is bad. But it is also weird. An oddity you don’t need to see, you’ll just have to trust me that it exists.
What it’s about: Linda [Brie Larson] is a agricultural scientist who has created a grain of super rice that is naturally more abundant, more resistant to pests. It is the kind of game changer that could solve world hunger, diminish poverty. But her company is having a hard time selling it to lowly Indian farmers. So, looking for a friendlier face, they pluck Linda out of the lab and send her across the world to build relationships with the Indian people and help them see the virtues of their scientific breakthrough. In India, Linda meets Rajit [Utkarsh Ambudkar], a college dropout who is duly skeptical of this deal, too good to be true. As they spend time together, the tension between Linda and Rajit turns into an emotional bond. But the things Linda doesn’t realize about her company’s aims may destroy the people she is enthusiastically trying to help -- including the man she is falling for.
The musical numbers are something between the Bollywood style and La La Land, so they never reach the exuberance or artistic merit of either. Trying to play it as a mix of its straight influences and a more poppy modern sound makes the music an infinitesimally light version.
The film falls into most of the worst traps of telling a story about an American experiencing a foreign land. India is presented wholly as a delicate paradise. The poverty of its people is something noble or precious. To its credit, though, it combats this a bit by directly commenting on Linda’s [America’s] naivety but ends up just trying to play it both ways.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Basmati Blues is that it asks the question of scientific virtue vs. corporate control. This is a worthwhile theme to explore. The difficulty, though, is that Linda is so purely altruistic and the corporation is so purely, mustache-twirling evil that it doesn’t really explore much of anything. Linda is impossibly unaware of the corporate aims.
Donald Sutherland plays the head of the corporation as a lighter version of President Snow. He gets a few musical numbers, which is something. Not his strong suit.
The two leads, however, are a bright spot. Brie Larson’s talent still shines through despite the lackluster script. She’s naturally funny. She can sing and dance. She has a magnetic personality. She’s opposed by Utkarsh Ambudkar [The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect], who is incredibly charismatic. They are able to have natural chemistry even when the film’s romantic plot is incredibly cliched and honestly not very developed. Whenever the film is just the two of them on screen, it is better.