"You're going to sing now?" The question is both sardonic and exasperated, and it reflects the attitude of the audience in that moment. Basmati Blues is an odd duck and certainly an experience for which exasperation feels like an authentic response. The rule of the musical - or, at least, the implied rule - is that characters should break into song when they cannot express how they feel through speech. In this movie, characters break into song because the screenplay requires it, so the question makes more sense than screenwriters Danny Baron (who also directed) and Jeff Dorchen likely intended.
It's an act of breaking the fourth wall in two respects: The character is acknowledging what should be an expressive choice outside her control, and she is also acknowledging an audience who likewise find it hard to believe that the other character is going to sing right now. After all, this is the story of a scientist who has traveled to India to introduce a genetically modified grain of rice into the population. It's a rather alarming story, steeped in a lot of baggy political maneuvering and subsequent commentary on colonialism that seems at odds with the tone and editorial rhythms, which are apparently meant to emulate those of Bollywood.
The attempt is fine on the face of it, and it helps that the scientist, Linda Watt, is played by Brie Larson, an actress of seemingly endless charisma whose efforts to bring her character to life unintentionally make the character come off a bit too strong. She works for Mogil, a not-at-all-ironically-named laboratory (led by Donald Sutherland and Tyne Daly as the company's president and vice president) that has created a grain of rice no longer in seed form. The farmers in India who are currently fighting an infestation of bacteria that could sweep through their crops, for which Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar) has found a solution that no one else takes seriously, will unwittingly have to pay for the privilege of using this new grain. Linda becomes a pawn in that scheme, all the while growing fonder of the people she meets - particularly Rajit.
There's a bit more (too much, really) where all this comes from, and the film's thin frame cannot support all of it. The political angle is too weakly developed, with Sutherland's Gurgon only needing to twirl his mustache to be a more cartoonish villain (It even ends with a halfhearted chase onto a train). The songs are pleasantly mediocre, essentially blurring together into a mush of generic, Hindi-infused pop. The romance between Linda and Rajit is the usual song-and-dance (Pardon the pun) of will-they-or-won't-they tension. Yet as airless as Basmati Blues is, there is a go-getter charm that makes it impossible to hate. With more conviction, it might have leapt off the screen. Until then, we have this whisper of what could be.
Brie Larson (Linda), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Rajit), Saahil Sehgal (William), Donald Sutherland (Gurgon), Scott Bakula (Eric), Tyne Daly (Evelyn).
Directed by Danny Baron and written by Baron and Jeff Dorchen.
No MPAA rating.
Released in select cities on February 9, 2018.