If you’re wondering why Brie Larson, after winning the Oscar for “Room” and then proving her franchise bona fides in last year’s “Kong: Skull Island,” is now starring in “Basmati Blues,” an ultra-cutesy micro-indie cross-cultural comedy that opened last Friday on a tiny sprinkling of screens, the answer is: The movie has been sitting on the shelf for so long — most of it was filmed in 2013, before a monsoon shut it down — that Larson, when it was made, hadn’t even appeared on the radar yet with her splendid performance in “Short Term 12.” Then again, if you’re wondering why a movie as unimportant as “Basmati Blues” has become the subject of a mini controversy, the answer is: Because there is something a tad patronizing about it — but also because the international trailer for the picture that appeared in November provoked a bit of a misunderstanding.
Larson, you see, plays a devoted scientist named Linda who has perfected a genetically modified form of basmati rice called Rice 9. The corporation she works for dispatches her on a PR mission to India to sell the product to locals — meaning the 1.3 billion citizens of India, which is an awful lot of locals.
The reason the trailer caused a mini-ruckus is that a number of Indians who saw it objected to what they read as yet another condescending “white savior” movie. But what the trailer (which was quickly withdrawn) scarcely captures is that Linda isn’t supposed to be bringing salvation to the Indian subcontinent. She may see herself that way, but the forces she represents are entirely corrupt; that’s the whole point. She’s one of those eager but clueless American naïfs who has to wake up and see the error of her tunnel-vision ways.
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As for the milder charge that the movie portrays Indians in an annoyingly coy sitcom-vindaloo manner — the singsong insouciance! the fits of polite rage! the head waggles! — well, yes, it does. But at least they’re portrayed by good actors, and it’s not as if presenting a stereotyped vision of an “exotic” culture is a rare thing to encounter in American movies.
Shot on location in Kerala, “Basmati Blues” isn’t racist; it’s just awash in clichés. And the reason the movie even tries to get away with its genial hackneyed approach hinges on the one truly surprising thing about it: It’s a musical. No, not a funky polyrhythmic ersatz-Bollywood musical (though there is a Bollywood number at the end), but an old-fashioned raise-your-heart-to-the-heavens-and-sing neo-studio-system musical, with some halfway catchy songs. Give Dan Baron, the director and co-writer of “Basmati Blues,” credit for prescience, if not exactly good sense: His innocuous but defiantly oddball movie suggests “Our Brand Is Crisis” remade by novice imitators of “La La Land.”
If you watch Brie Larson in “Basmati Blues,” you’ll see one thing a star is made of: never phoning it in. (It’s like going back to see Sandra Bullock in 1992’s “Love Potion No. 9.”) Larson’s Linda arrives in a region of India that the Mogil corporation, led by the sinister global colonizer Gurgon (Donald Sutherland), has designated “the hallowed cradle of basmati rice,” even if the whole idea is completely made up; the company is just looking for a marketing hook. Linda is at sea about this, because she’s a white-coated techie nerd, but Larson gives her a sparkle, especially during the musical numbers, which are often pleasing, though the plot takes too much cue from them. It’s like watching a lame studio bauble from 1962.
Linda flirts with a couple of locals: the smooth Westernized opportunist William (Saahil Sehgal) and Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agricultural science student who’s too poor to pay his tuition, and has been forced to go back to working on his family’s rice farm. It’s part of the film’s innocently thoughtless design that Rajit is a character who objects to the stereotyping of Indians and still manages to seem like a stereotyped Indian. Yet Utkarsh Ambudkar gives a sexy, winning performance. He’s charismatically perturbed.
“Basmati Blues” is one of those movies that isn’t terrible but still leaves you wondering why it exists. The most bizarre thing about it is that the plot hinges on how the Mogil corporation intends to scam the farmers, signing them to contracts that will force them to buy the company’s rice for each new planting. Yet the reason that Rice 9 can’t reseed itself (even though rice itself is a seed) is that the miracle product is that prefab. You’d think the movie might take issue with that, whatever the contract, but no: It’s utterly blasé about the prospect of feeding India with GMO crops. Now that’s worth a protest.