UK Release Date: 12th February 2018
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: Dan Baron
Writer: Dan Baron, Jeff Dorchen
Starring: Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Scott Bakula, Tyne Daly
Synopsis: A gifted scientist is sent to India by her agricultural company to sell a technologically advanced grain of rice to local farmers who are sceptical about the big American corporation.
I imagine that, somewhere amidst the opulent glitz of the Hollywood Hills, Brie Larson woke up in a cold sweat one morning in November last year. She had spent several years basking in the success of her Oscar win for Room and was preparing to front Captain Marvel for Disney’s gargantuan MCU. The reason for her distress was simple – a secret project, long buried, that she hoped had disappeared forever was now plastered all over the internet like an embarrassing teenage Facebook post. The film was Basmati Blues and, it’s fair to say, that trailer is only half of what’s wrong with this fascinating mess. If Tommy Wiseau had made a musical about rice farming in India, it probably would’ve looked a lot like this.
Larson plays a brilliant scientist named Linda, who unironically describes herself in her opening song as a “science hero” and has worked with her father (Scott Bakula) to construct a technologically advanced rice seed with an increased yield. The agricultural company’s slimy head Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) decides to send Linda to India in the hope she can convince local farmers to switch to their seeds. There, she meets down-on-his-luck local Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who proves to be both a friend and a rival.
Basmati Blues opens with the camera zooming into a grain of rice in order to see an x-ray depiction of the DNA within it. We then meet Larson, who dances around her laboratory while being so obsessed with her work that she involuntarily yells “chromosome” when she is jolted out of sleep and thinks “I have never met anybody who likes weeds” is sultry flirtation. She was cast during her pre-stardom days back in 2013 and it seems likely that her fame is the only thing that dragged this film kicking and screaming off the dusty shelf. This is a depressing example of a talented actress slumming it in a film that, even if it wasn’t back then, is way beneath her now.
It’s impossible to sum up the sheer weirdness of Basmati Blues, which often seems to forget it’s a musical only to stuff in a random song with little relevance to the plot. The lyrics are utterly laughable, with pleasantly goofy male lead Utkarsh Ambudkar singing about seeing “her name on a grain of rice” and Donald Sutherland getting a villain song that makes Chris Cooper‘s rap in The Muppets look like the sensible actions of an Oscar winner. Sutherland, especially, seems to just get bored halfway through and spends the third act randomly spewing nonsense phrases like “you rock, doc” and “get that choo-choo train going”. Perhaps his odd performance is linked to the character’s unusual superpowers, as he can apparently make bartenders appear at will and is able to get Larson a passport without her knowledge.
That weirdness might be charming, were it not for the movie’s stunning lack of cultural awareness. It’s a rampant depiction of the ‘white saviour’ trope, culminating in Larson leading a protest in scenes that could only be more problematic if Kendall Jenner wandered in brandishing a can of Pepsi. By the time she gallops through the crowds on a white horse – for the symbolism fans! – it becomes clear that writer-director Dan Baron‘s cultural approach is headache-inducingly blind. That’s not to mention the fish out of water cliché nightmare of scenes in which Larson is taught to dance Bollywood-style and struggles with spicy food.
On a simpler level, though, Basmati Blues simply fails as a drama. The romance is laughably nonsensical and the corporate espionage plot doesn’t make even the slightest amount of sense, given Larson possesses all of the information she needs from the beginning, but for some reason doesn’t understand why it’s significant. A whole element of the narrative hinges on the plot device of a ‘rice weighing contest’ and the fact the final scenes are set at an Indian wedding feels like the most paint-by-numbers piece of storytelling possible.
Brie Larson will hope Basmati Blues goes away quietly, but this is a mad, strange slice of oddball cinema that could be destined to play and play to crowds of morbidly curious movie fans asking the same question over and over again – why, oh why?
Pop or Poop?
There’s something compelling about Basmati Blues, despite its stunning lack of basic cinematic competence. Brie Larson is a fish out of water in more ways than one, both as an American character transported to India and as an Oscar-winning actress transported into bargain basement trash without a shred of self-awareness. Fans are better off staying away, but the ‘so bad, it’s good’ crowd may have a new favourite.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Basmati Blues is available on VOD platforms, including iTunes, from February 12.