Watching this long-delayed American musical (the film was supposed to be released in 2015) set in India, starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson (but shot before she became an Oscar winner), I didn’t know whether to be deeply offended or simply sit back and bask in the goofy, tone-deaf glory of Basmati Blues.
Written by Danny Baron (who also directed) and Jeffrey Dorchen, this film tells the story of researcher Dr. Linda Watt (Larson) who works for a big agricultural corporation called Mogil (in case you weren’t already clear we are not meant to trust big companies). She develops a strain of rice that will result in a higher yield for less money and be resistant to crop-damaging chemicals and pests. Sound great, right?
So why do we have such a hard time trusting Mogil’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) and his henchwoman (Tyne Daly) as they send the good doctor off to India to show local farmers the benefit of this new product, known as Rice 9?
At this point, I think it’s time we all accept that most cultural fish-out-of-water stories such as this are also a tiny bit racist. Larson walks through this movie wide eyed and shocked at all of the strange and exotic customs of the Indian people. She even takes a liking to a local man, Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who has just returned from university after running out of money to continue his studies.
I think I mentioned this was a musical, but rather than embrace the Bollywood tradition, Basmati Blues fancies itself a painfully American musical, so most of the songs are sappy, overproduced ballads or generic, peppy numbers, each one more forgettable than the last. There’s an odd lineup of songwriters (Kristian Bush of Sugarland, Goldspot, Dave Baerwald, and Sonu Nigam, among others) who supply some of the original tunes, and for Pearl Jam completists, there’s even an unreleased song by the group (written and sung by band guitarist Stone Gossard) featured in one montage, but it all feels subpar.
Basmati Blues wants to have it both ways. It tries to be colorful and vibrant while also telling this serious story about corporate greed and cheating the Indian farmers out of their land through a loophole in the contracts they must sign to get the new rice. As soon as she finds out about this, Dr. Watt is having none of it and quickly switches sides to go against her company.
The film feels over simplified in its construction, and it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine American, Indians or any other nationality enjoying the music or characters here. As for Larson, she looks like someone who got a free trip to India and is counting down the minutes until the boring movie part of her vacation is over.
If you’ve ever wanted to hear Scott Bakula (he plays Larson’s father, also a scientist at Mogil) sing like an off-Broadway understudy, Basmati Blues is your ticket. The film certainly has the curiosity factor going for it, but not much else.
The film opens today at the AMC South Barrington 30 and is available on all major VOD platforms.