It hurts to malign on a movie that’s directed and written by someone who obviously enjoyed the inspiration behind it. That’s at least what I’m assuming is the case with director and screenwriter Dan Baron’s Americanized ode to Bollywood, Basmati Blues. The three-year lag between film and release is already a bad sign, but wouldn’t necessarily be a killer if the movie’s bizarre tones, treacly unmemorable songs, and inane story didn’t do the job for it.
Dr. Linda Watt (Brie Larson) is a scientist who has just created a miracle rice able to feed whole countries without draining farmers’ resources. Her boss (Donald Sutherland) needs someone to convince the farmers of India to sign with the rice company and sends Linda. Once there Linda becomes immersed in Indian culture while also sparring with an equally intelligent local man named Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who believes Linda’s rice isn’t what India needs.
Everything about Basmati Blues sounds like it shouldn’t work and it doesn’t. Right away there’s the sense that director Dan Baron – making his directorial debut – has watched some Bollywood films, but doesn’t quite understand what makes the genre so popular. The opening scene follows a group of happy Indians putting grains of rice into a bowl, and the way it’s filmed implies this is an ad for something. Is it a parody commercial for the rice company? Selling us a sanitized travel brochure for the country? Nope, it’s just a scene that has no bearing on the rest of the plot.
Larson is our pretty heroine, and it’s understandable why this film originally planned to come out to capitalize on her work in Room back in 2015 ( and just as easy to understand why it’s taken three years for it to arrive.) Larson’s Linda works with her dad (an underutilized Scott Bakula) on a strain of rice that will save the world, or at least it’s touted as such. Though she’s just a scientist with no discernible background in selling or public relations she’s considered the best person to sell a group of local farmers in India on the company and her rice.
Basmati Blues thankfully isn’t interested in following the “fish out of water” narrative, so while Linda is initially against eating with her hands and falls right into the trap of what’s a legitimate “local greeting,” they’re the extent of things. Instead Larson’s Linda finds herself pulled between two suitors, Ambudkar’s Rajit and the dashing Will (Saahil Sehgal), while dealing with the fact that Raji is trying to undermine her plans to get the farmers to sign her company’s contracts. Larson is a trouper because she does emit a golden glow that’s enough to get nearly everyone in the town on her side. She has a sweet voice and her musical number which could draw comparisons to Emma Stone’s musical performance in La La Land. The problem is there’s only so far Larson’s smile and chronically bemused face can go.
As a character Linda falls into the realm of “incredibly smart, yet terrible at love.” Sure, Linda can sing, create miracle rice, and quickly learn the Bollywood dance move of “pat the goat,” but she’s terrible at business. The script leaves Linda so honored to be considered for the trip to India she never questions why she’s being sent. And when Rajit reveals her boss’ evil plot – something anyone with basic reading comprehension would have figured out – she acts like that couldn’t possibly be true.
It’s actually hilarious that Linda doesn’t believe her boss, a man with the appropriate name of Gurgon, isn’t evil once everyone sees Sutherland’s performance. He rules over a black-cloaked boardroom with his wife, played by Tyne Daly, and says “India” with all the gusto of Spongebob’s MermaidMan screaming “Evil!” Sutherland couldn’t be more villainous if he tried, and he already doesn’t have to try hard. Oddly enough, Gurgon and Daly’s Evelyn end up absconding with a train full of rice in the third act, singing to each other the whole way. (The entire third act enters the world of “kookoo bananas” quickly.)
When Larson and Ambudkar’s go about their screwball dance of “I hate you/I love you” Basmati Blues finds something passing for normal. The two have an amiable chemistry, able to play off each other because both are meant to have common interests. Linda enjoys talking exclusively in plant species and other overly technical terms – because she’s a scientist after all – and Rajit gets her. Their love songs together definitely belong on a compilation album of stock songs to swoon over but they’re solid. Ambudkar is cute as Rajit, a man who could have gone to college but isn’t encouraged to engage in his scientific pursuits.
But the characters get lost in such a bizarre movie. Tom Lewis’ fitful editing can leave you with whiplash. Single scenes have at least five to six cuts, and many of the cuts don’t seem to make any sense short of showing enough footage wasn’t included. The Bilar landscape is lush, but a limited budget makes everything look like a typical Indian farming town. Larson and Ambudkar’s romantic moonlit song looks like it was filmed on green screen. The entire endeavor looks like it’s an inch away from being sold out from under it.
There are plenty of blues to be found, no matter how much Baron believed his heart to be in the right place. But it’s hard not to see Basmati Blues as a Bollywood film appropriated by white people. Larson is cute but this is far beneath her talents.