India’s farmers have had to walk close to 200 km to Mumbai on foot or protest week after week in the national capital to draw the government’s attention to the agrarian crisis. A Hollywood film turns the lens on India’s farmers without them even trying – or asking for it.
Danny Baron’s musical comedy Basmati Blues, which was released on February 8, is replete with stereotypes that social media had caught early on, when the film’s trailer was released last November. The makers had apologised and said that the trailer does not represent the movie’s sentiment. But Basmati Blues, even if well-intentioned, does not rise above the cliches to find its heart.
Brie Larson plays Linda, a scientist who, along with her father, develops a calcium-enriched variety of rice to help farmers boost their yields and incomes. But a Monsanto-like corporation that wants to sell this seed in the “hallowed cradle of basmati rice” has intentions that are less noble. By introducing the rice variety to India, the company hopes to replace the organic seeds with a lab-grown variety that the farmers will have to continue purchasing for the rest of their lives, mortgaging their land in the process. To fulfill this mission, they send Linda to Bilari in India, confident that her affable personality, passion for the project and cluelessness over their sinister design will make her the ideal salesperson.
Linda embarks on a journey that unwittingly lands the farmers in a soup and then rescues them, with some help from her friend and love interest Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar).
A foreign production is not expected to get everything about India right. But the problem with Basmati Blues is that it doesn’t even try. Early mentions of India are accompanied by a classical music-themed background score. Although Bilari appears to be in Kerala, its residents have surnames such as Patel and Kapoor. Everyone eats on banana leaves, and when Rajit makes his way to his house from the railway station, he travels by bullock cart.
The movie doesn’t even work at the plot level. The urgent issue of the exploitation of farmers by conglomerates and the impact of genetically modified crops on traditional agrarian practices are barely explored.
The director throughout remains an outsider looking in, with a gaze that is mostly patronising and sometimes in awe, but never informed.
Larson reportedly signed the film in 2012 before she appeared in and won an Oscar for her performance in Room (2015), which perhaps explains her presence here. But it is unclear why Donald Sutherland joined the club. The film also stars Lakshmi Manchu, Dalip Tahil and Suhasini Mulay in talent-wasting roles.