Basmati Blues starring Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Donald Sutherland premiered on February 9 through video on demand and limited theatrical release in the United States. The musical film was shot in Kerala mostly in 2013, according to Variety, years before Larson’s 2016 Oscar-winning performance in The Room and following Ambudkar’s 2012 Pitch Perfect role.
It follows American scientist Linda (Larson) who travels to India to sell the genetically enhanced rice she’s developed to rural farmers, on behalf of Mogil, an agricultural biotechnology company. Circumstances become complicated when college student Rajit (Ambudkar) returns home to find Linda and her corporate liaison William J. Patel (Saahil Sehgal) shilling non-sustainable seeds in his community. Rajit vows to convince his neighbors of a less invasive farming alternative.
Along the way, Linda and Rajit develop feelings for one another, while William insinuates himself more and more into both of their lives at the behest of Mogil CEO Gurgon (Sutherland). The movie boasts an original score, and all musical numbers are performed by the lead actors.
Part Bollywood homage, part western romantic comedy, Basmati Blues ostensibly has the ingredients to be a campy send-up of the tropes we’ve come to either love or loathe from both genres. But the movie’s American filmmakers try to imitate too many filmic genres and ultimately fail to commit to any one message successfully.
Throughout the narrative, Linda oscillates between an imitation of Lawrence of Arabia and Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). As she struggles to adjust to rural Indian life — spotty cell service, unreliable electricity, eating with her hands and learning other “exotic” customs — Linda is charmed by Rajit’s rascally way of proving he’s right about something.
Of course, as with most popular western media that depicts South Asians in interracial romances, the object of our brown hero’s affections is white. One of the problems with this particular cinematic pairing is that any other desis in the story are invisibilized or cast as the romantic hurdle that our hero must overcome in order to be with his or her white love interest (see Bride and Prejudice, The Hundred-foot Journey and Master of None for examples).
It’s disappointing too, that U.S. born and raised actor Utkarsh Ambudkar appropriates a fake Indian accent in his portrayal of Rajit. The actor, who has played Mindy’s brother Rishi Lahiri in The Mindy Project and Hollywood agent Malcolm in White Famous, said in a 2014 interview that he “made a promise to himself about the parts he would and wouldn’t take…You’re not going to catch me selling hot dogs or working at a 7-Eleven.” I can’t help but wonder if Ambudkar regrets faking the accent, essentially playing into the “Apu” stereotype he promised to avoid.
One particular musical number, “The Greater Good,” demonstrates the film’s quest to impart morality on viewers. Gurgon quite literally puts on a show for William, convincing him that any doubts he has about selling sterile rice seeds to poor Indian farmers are unwarranted. These more efficiently grown and abundantly harvested crops will benefit “the greater good” in the long run, never mind that their sales will make the farmers lifelong debt slaves.
“The Greater Good” number cements Gurgon as an uber villain caricature, pinning all of Mogil corporation’s evil onto a single character, while mystifying audiences to the insidiousness of imperialism. Gurgon’s outrageous villainy makes it easy for the film to wrap up neatly at the end when Rajit and Linda band together with the farmers to oust Gurgon from the village.
A little part of me dies every time a Hollywood film or television episode ends with a choreographed Bollywood-esque dance number. When most authentic Bollywood movies conclude, the audience is invited — through glitzy setting, glamourous costuming and gorgeous casting — to sink into cathartic bliss with the triumphant film heroes before the credits roll. Basmati Blues’ attempt to neatly gift-wrap a saccharine opera by haphazardly throwing in a song and dance at the conclusion doesn’t impress.
South Asian produced films are so successful internationally partly because audiences are allowed to temporarily suspend their disbelief in order to be entertained. But Basmati Blues’ lackluster display of Bollywood trappings doesn’t achieve this. Larson and Ambudkar’s vocals don’t stack up against beloved performers like Lata Mangeshkar or Mohammad Rafi. The songs themselves fail to evoke the same poetry as classics like “Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein” or “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jana Sanam.”
At its best, Basmati Blues is a 21st century example of the romantic, imperialist adventure fantasies popularized in the Indiana Jones films. At worst, it is a culturally essentialist parable against South Asian assimilation to neoliberalism in the age of globalization. Basmati Blues is a film trying to be too many things and not quite managing to be any one thing successfully. A musical, a political satire, a love story, a comedic Bollywood homage, and ultimately a cinematic flop.
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in gender and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.