With “Morning Raga,” regional Indian cinema again proves willing to dabble outside the restrictive formulas of its Bollywood big brother. Fusing traditional elements into an American-leaning “let’s start a band” tale, helmer-/scripter Mahesh Dattani shuttles back and forth between hip globalized culture and customs rooted in the Indian soil, using local color as a counterweight to modern Westernized society. Backed by mega-producer K. Raghavendra Rao, Dattani’s assembled an impressive cast and crew. Local opening met with critical praise but less enthusiastic public reception; fest life seems the safest bet.
Excellent opening credits intercut beautiful scenes of the countryside with two femme singers traveling from their homes to a temple. The women board a bus to a concert in the city, but the vehicle careens off a bridge, killing one and leaving the other, Swarnalatha (Shabana Azmi, one of India’s top actresses), traumatized.
Twenty years later in Hyderabad, the dead woman’s son Abhinay (Prakash Rao) decides he’s fed up with composing throw-away jingles and wants to start his own band with jazz-inflected pop sounds. Enter Pinkie (Perizaad Zorabian), sporting a lovely voice and an understanding mom (Lillete Dubey, camping it up) who’s more than happy to have the group rehearse in the back of her boutique. Audition sequences are too hackneyed, however, and the chosen drummer, Bals (Shaleen Sharma), is a hippie-type character way past expiration date.
The band’s first gig isn’t a success: The club manager accuses them of trying to be whites trying to be blacks. While struggling to find a new direction, Abhinay runs into Swarnalatha, and, after hearing her singing in the mesmerizing Carnatic tradition of southern India, he’s convinced her sound is just what the band needs. Problem is getting her to leave her village, which she’s steadfastly refused to do ever since Abhinay’s mom’s fatal bus crash.
Dattani’s influences range well beyond the subcontinent, and he’s skilled at combining them with certain Indian tropes, such as the peasant cowherd Appa Rao (D. Subramanyam) who talks to his animal and acts as a kind of Greek chorus. However, some emotional catharses are over too quickly, and Dattani, in his sophomore feature (after “Mango Souffle”), needs to develop his feel for a good build-up that will allow him to coast on the subsequent emotional pay-off.
Still, beautiful compositions and lensing by vet d.p. Rajiv Menon, a director in his own right, are a pleasure, evocatively bringing out the colors of the countryside. The singers used to dub the actors are tops, and final concert works as a perfect climax, with well-calibrated sound.