Love Comes Knocking for Brie Larson and Utkarsh Ambudkar in Campy ‘Basmati Blues’
Ever since the trailer for “Basmati Blues” was dropped last month, the Bollywood-inspired romantic comedy starring none other than Brie Larson has become an object of curiosity. Filmed in 2013 before Larson’s Oscar-winning turn in “Room,” “Basmati Blues” tells the story of an idealistic American scientist, Linda Watt (Larson), who, alongside her father (Scott Bakula), develops a genetically modified rice that has the potential to end world hunger. Despite her pivotal role here, Linda is shocked when her boss, Gurgon (Donald Sutherland), decides that she should be the company’s ambassador in India. Even more unbelievable, he only gives her a day’s notice and has already managed to finagle her a passport, but this is the kind of thing that flies in this campy and whimsical world created by director Dan Baron, one in which our heroine breaks into song and dance on a crowded New York street. As bizarre as some are making Larson’s role in “Basmati Blues” out to be, her casting here isn’t that much of a stretch, considering the actress had a fledgling pop music career as a young teen, years before her Oscar glory.
Once in India, the idealist scientist attracts much attention, particularly when it comes to two very different young men – William (Saahil Sehgal), the upper-class bureaucrat who acts as her guide, and Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a local man with a gifted scientific mind who was forced to leave college due to lack of funds. For Ambudkar, an actor best known for his recurring role as as Mindy Kaling’s aspiring rapper brother on “The Mindy Project,” and, more recently, co-starring on the edgy Showtime series “White Famous,” “Basmati Blues” presented him with a rare chance to play a romantic lead.
“There are so few opportunities for a South Asian man in Hollywood to play a leading role,” Ambudkar explained to Entertainment Voice when asked what attracted him to the film. “In 2013, I get a lead role opposite Brie Larson, and then five years without it happening. And I just, in November, shot a movie with Jillian Bell called ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ where I’m the romantic lead in that, so it just shows you how far and few between these opportunities are. That was a big reason; I don’t have to play the computer guy, I’m not playing the asexual best friend, I’m not playing the guy in the taxicab or any number of stereotypes that I’m sure you can imagine.”
While William sees Linda as being more of a trophy, Rajit, a true rom-com underdog, values her intelligence. However, there is an obstacle to their love: Rajit is developing his own strand of rice to rival Linda’s, not so much for his own glory, but as a way to finance the rest of his education. Although Linda is initially too invested in her work to care about romance, it’s not long before she finds herself sucked into a love triangle not entirely unlike the kind one would see in a guilty pleasure Hallmark-type film.
Predictably, Linda’s path to happily ever after is a bumpy one, not just due to her two handsome suitors, but also because she discovers that her company doesn’t exactly share her altruistic values, as Gurgon and his cronies actually have a greedy agenda. This makes for some amusing scenes in which the star of “Ordinary People” plays the cartoonish villain, but the real treat here are the fun musical numbers. While “Basmati Blues” doesn’t try to be “La La Land,” it does feature some catchy songs, namely “Love Don’t Knock at My Door,” a three-way number that includes the vocal talents of Larson, Ambudkar and Sehgal.
Like Larson, music has always been an important part of Ambudkar’s career. He got his start as a VJ for MTV Desi and went on to originate the role of Aaron Burr in the developmental readings of the hit musical “Hamilton.”
“I did ‘Pitch Perfect,’ I would call that a musical,” he said. “I’ve been involved with the ‘Hamilton’ boys for a while. We’re all in a group called Freestyle Love Supreme. Music has been a thruline throughout my entire career, so this felt very exciting, and also a natural progression.”
A visually pleasing film, “Basmati Blues” was shot in Kerala, India, a location which, according to Ambudkar, presented some unique challenges.
“Shooting in India’s a trip. It requires a stick-to-itiveness that most people don’t have,” he explained. “You have to be on your feet for anything. We were shooting during the monsoon season in Kerala in supreme heat. One minute you’re shooting a scene, and the next minute there’s torrential downpour. We were shooting in Kerala, which is full of waterways. It’s like the Venice of India. So we were taking boats to work. You take a boat to your dressing room, and then you take a boat to set, and a boat to catering. If you ask the filmmakers, they would say that it was difficult, but I had a really good time.”
“Brie is one of these people who is up for anything,” Ambudkar replied when asked how his co-star fared in these conditions. “She works her ass off on this movie… She’s a pro. She knows what she’s doing and we had a good time together. She’s got an amazing voice and a real ability to lock into the moment. Acting with her, she’s an extremely generous partner.”
As the end of it all, what does Ambudkar hope the viewer takes away from “Basmati Blues”?
“The movie itself, I think at its heart, is just trying to tell us that – and it’s so pertinent to today’s situation in America – it’s trying its best to show us that it doesn’t matter where you are from or who you are, or how much money you have, if you’re open and willing to sort of see your own mistakes, or your own flaws, you can find peace,“ said the actor. “We use a love story to try our very best to show people that if you just listen, maybe we can build a better world. I know it’s corny, but it’s true.”
“Basmati Blues” opens Feb. 9 in select theaters and VOD.