Look, whatever you’re tempted to say about Basmati Blues, here’s one thing that’s true: There’s no way your satiric screwball Amerindie Bollywood-inflected Brie Larson romantic musical comedy about agribusiness in India would work better. Nobody’s wheelhouse has Basmati Blues in it. As such, Dan Baron’s film is less a narrative feature you get caught up in then it is a document of the fact that, yes, this thing got financed and finished. Watching it is something like watching a play’s first full dress rehearsal or a gangly baby deer’s initial attempts to stand, where it’s the effort that’s more engaging than the achievement itself.
Whatever else, Basmati Blues does qualify as “achievement.” Here’s a film where Tyne Daly, as a powerful businesswoman, belts out a laugh line about how great it would be to bring back child labor. Here’s a film in which the consideration of the impact of genetically modified seeds on global farmers somehow builds to Larson on horseback facing down riot police and then chasing a train. It’s in the heat of this climax, of course, that her character — Linda — finally realizes which of her suitors she loves.
Larson gamely sparkles, though she can’t quite make Linda comprehensible. (The film was shot in 2013 and is now seeing release thanks to Larson’s higher profile.) A scientist who has engineered a super rice for a corporation that’s totally not Monsanto, Linda gets sent to India by her CEO (Donald Sutherland!) to convince the residents of a farming community to sign contracts to agree to buy the seeds she’s engineered each year. Despite being a woman of great accomplishment who lives in Manhattan, where swans throughout Midtown sing in the fleet opening number, Larson’s Linda is wholly overwhelmed at first by the subcontinent. She almost panics leaving the airport because there’s about a dozen people right outside the doors — enough to throw any seasoned New Yorker! And, speaking of seasoning, she’s flummoxed at her first meal in India, uncertain what’s food and what isn’t. Yes, she’s another driven career woman who has never found time in her life for living — or, apparently, takeout.
These opening scenes are cut with a jagged aggression, each moment spliced right on top of the next with no room to breathe. It’s an exhausting onslaught, like watching the film at 1.5 speed, especially a miserable sequence of Linda’s disorientation — all tilted and swooping shots of crowds, cows, streets and goats. She loosens up after realizing she’s staying in a palace, though the morning after she sings about wondering what tomorrow will bring while sitting in the backseat of a car and glumly staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. The editors slice in interesting shots of village life — I guess to show us what she’s missing?
The songs tend toward a glittering guitar-based pop, sometimes tinged with tabla and sitar, only on occasion compelling or expressive of the characters’ hearts. Generic yet pleasant, they sound something like a cross between late-period U2 (glisten majestically, you rising chords!) and the kind of upmarket Nashville country that sells better at Target than it does at Walmart. I wrote that in my notebook and then was gratified by the end credits, which revealed that songs had been pitched in from Pearl Jam and Sugarland. The most Bollywood Basmati Blues gets is a romantic duet sung between Larson and Utkarsh Ambudkar, who plays Rajit, the poorer of Linda’s romantic options.
This number’s a legitimate highlight, though it’s not as delightful as the moment that precedes it. Rajit faces Linda in a radiant two-shot inside a temple as they bicker through a seed-politics version of the small chain–vs.-megastore You've Got Mail conflict. (He’s right; she’s wrong; Linda’s too humble/clueless to be the white savior character that some viewers of the trailers attacked.) Once they’re talked out, they hush, for a breath, and then Rajit gazes longingly upon her and, without accompaniment, croons the first line of their duet.
Linda cuts him off. “You’re going to sing now?” she snaps.
Too bad so much of Basmati Blues is utterly unlike that moment, one of the few where Linda is not a naif, where she seizes control of a moment, where it’s the rhythms of the actors that give the scene shape rather than the haste of the editors. Like Linda, the Indian characters slip continually from flat to round. Some are comically broad — this is, after all, a movie where a goat assists in a jailbreak — and some serve to teach Linda that, actually, the international conglomerate she works for does not have Indian farmers’ interests at heart. That this is news to her makes her difficult to cheer for, but I guess we can give the movie this: No character is as broad a caricature as its white lead. Early on, in a charmingly comic scene, our sheltered American even gets fooled into believing that it’s customary in India to greet new acquaintances with gentle slaps to the temples.
Wondering about the choices behind Basmati Blues often is more interesting than the film’s moment-to-moment drift. Did the screenwriters — Baron with Jeffrey Dorchen — intend to make their protagonist a deeply uninformed nonentity who, despite her advanced degrees and desire to feed the world, has apparently never once thought about how people other than herself actually live? Perhaps this characterization is meant as inoculation from accusations that, in creating Basmati Blues, they have sought to appropriate a culture that isn’t theirs. (In the press notes, Baron admits to never having seen a Bollywood film until after he conceived of this project; Bollywood’s greatest influence on the final film mostly seems to be in the license the director and screenwriter felt to go broad.) In one way, Linda’s story seems a version of their own: A nice American goes to India but knows not to pretend for a moment to be an expert on anything except what she’s trained in.
Perhaps that’s admirable. But art demands vision rather than a surplus of notions and some humility, and the animating idea behind too many scenes here seems simply to be, “Wow, we’re here making this movie!” It looks like it was fun.