REVIEW: Basmati Blues
By Fred Pryce
Basmati Blues is the sort of jaw-droppingly insane car-wreck of a movie that could only be a 10-years-in-the-making indie passion project - it’s burning to the ground as you watch, but you just can’t look away from the flames. Fans of bad movies like The Room know that enjoyment can stem not only from laughing at incompetence, but trying to comprehend the reasoning behind some truly baffling, and clearly personal, artistic choices. The difference between Blues and a movie like The Room isn’t just technical competence, but the fact that it stars Brie Larson, one of the most famous actresses in the world. She is also unabashedly and earnestly committed to her role, enough that she returned for extensive reshoots after she won an Oscar. Imagine her shooting this and Infinity War back to back.
Larson plays Linda Watt, an up-and-coming young rice scientist (an intense CG opening sequence deep-dives into the very DNA of a grain of rice to carve out the title, with all the portent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or destiny itself). We learn important details about her from the abominably catchy opening song ‘All Signs Point to Yes’ - oh, yes, it’s a musical, in all its cheesy, faux-pop glory. These details include that she is a rice scientist, and her mother his dead, and that she is very earnest. There’s been a recent trend of roles for women in films being defined only by a vague love of ‘science’, with no actual exploration of what this means or further personality, and this is no exception. In fact, her apartment appears to be pretty much bare apart from a personal rice lab set up next to her kitchen. Brie Larson’s career started with pop star aspirations (from Wikipedia: “After failing to get cast as Wendy Darling in the 2003 film Peter Pan, a heartbroken Larson penned and recorded a song named ‘Invisible Girl’.” Tragic.).
She’s clearly not a bad vocalist, but is left utterly stranded by the generic compositions, and somewhat literally stranded when she’s left awkwardly dancing in the middle of a busy street. Despite all the other song sequences being fantastical, and often containing a chorus of backup singers, the opening number decided to go for a more gritty, urbane vision in line with the New York setting, where other people just walk around normally as Larson jumps around like a madwoman shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”. As our hero Linda sings, this is truly “the start of something epic,” for a one-of-a-kind cinematic adventure. The song also starts with everyone’s favourite musical movie trope: a series of rhythms tapped onto surrounding objects! Even a dog joins in at the end. (There’s also a hand featured tapping some test tubes that I suspect may not be her’s).
I focus so much on ‘All Signs Point To Yes’ because it’s the most clearly silly song in the movie, not that there are all that many in the first place, and because everything else gets into some thornier territory. You see, Ms. Linda Watt works for the definitely-not-evil Mogil Corporation (get it), and her boss, the legendarily overqualified Donald Sutherland (who young’uns know as the definitely-not-evil president from The Hunger Games) decides to send her to India to sell Rice Nine, her rice that’s better than normal rice. There’s no real struggle to achieve this: she’s just sent off, and her professional dreams that she sang about a couple of minutes earlier are already achieved! Movie’s over! However, the bulk of the movie plays as an attempted Bollywood homage, a musical-action-comedy-romance where every Indian character throws themselves at Larson adoringly, including a couple of men who fall instantly in love with her. Yep, it’s one of those! Though the filmmakers clearly have love for Bollywood musicals, and the attempt to recreate this for an American audience (including a majority-Indian cast) is somewhat admirable, they also don’t have the skills and know-how to pull it off, and the stink of white saviour-ism can’t be washed off, especially given her imparting this new-and-improved strain of rice on them. That the Indian characters speak almost entirely English amongst themselves doesn’t help. Though crucial context saves this threat from becoming explicit (the rice she’s selling turns out to be not so great), images like Larson riding in to save the day on a white horse above a crowd of darker-skinned people are cringeworthy to the extreme. I would point to Bride and Prejudice as a successful example of a Bollywood/Western blend, a movie that also happens to be directed by a woman of Indian heritage.
It must be said that the film isn’t universally terrible, but mostly just fascinating throughout. Most of the songs are vague to the extreme, spouting lyrics such as “I wander through these doubts for some sign or reason / And wonder if the road will know the way” in ‘When Tomorrow Comes’. Bizarrely, one of these is contributed by Pearl Jam, but fans of the rock mega-group will be saddened to learn that ‘Obey the Law of the Heart’ is no ‘Jeremy’. Larson’s love interest, played by Utkarsh Ambudkar, pretty much sucks as well, constantly moaning about farming or betraying her, and generally being less charming than his romantic competition, a dashingly handsome rich boy. There is one shining moment, however: a scene set in a club, where Larson begins to feel the tug between these two men, and the attendees dance and clap in unison with rhythm and energy. Donald Sutherland and his assistant (played by Tony-award winner Tyne Daly for some reason) also are consistently fun, doing their best in an awful Broadway-style number that seemingly ran out of budget (and choreography) halfway through, and participating in perhaps the least exciting train chase in cinema history. But it’s mostly a slog until the evil mega-corporation is revealed as evil, and the movie can end with everyone dancing at a wedding.
Basmati Blues is a fascinating misfire, and deserves more attention than the little it received, if only for the daring concept of a rice-science musical. And discovering so-bad-it’s-good movies in an era where the internet has seemingly discovered them all is a treat that should be cherished.
Streaming on Stan, if that matters.