There are a lot of movies like Basmati Blues — low-budget indie films featuring up-and-coming actors that get put on the shelf for years, only to see a small release once their star becomes super-famous.
There are also no movies like Basmati Blues — an original musical rom-com about global corporate imperialism shot almost entirely in India by an American director making his feature debut.
A film like this could not be dreamed up in a focus group, and like other low-budget oddities, it’s a product of a singular sensibility: that of the husband-and-wife team of director Dan Baron and producer Monique Caulfield. They’re the kind of married couple who likes to jump in and finish each other’s sentences, and they describe Basmati Blues as an intense, decade-long labor of love. Last month I wrote a snarky blog post about wanting to know everything about how and why the movie was made, and over the course of a 90-minute conversation, they were both kind enough to oblige. As Baron explained, “Once we thought about actually writing it, we thought, No one else is going to make it. We have to do it ourselves.”
The story of Basmati Blues begins in the late aughts. The couple had been active in the margins of the industry for years — Baron was one of the screenwriters on See Spot Run — when a producer he was working with on something else approached him with the idea of making an American Bollywood film. It sounded great, but there was one issue: He actually hadn’t seen any Bollywood films. So, he, Caulfield, and co-writer Jeff Dorchen staged a movie marathon, gorging on Awara, Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Khamoshi, Lagaan, and more. They say they fell in love with the form.
“You see, in those films, how they would mix melodrama and comedy and music and move in between those in a way that we’re not used to in our films,” Baron said. “It was fascinating.” Later, on location, a comparison struck him: “India is this very concentrated country with so many people, you are constantly confronting abrupt changes. Life is much less planned than it is here, and in their movies, you feel that.”
The idea for the plot bloomed out of a dinner party. The couple was hosting “a bunch of real smarty friends who started talking about food policy,” and conversation soon turned to a book by the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, particularly her essay about the morality of building dams in rural India, “The Greater Common Good.” Were these kinds of modernization projects worth the massive societal upheaval they caused, or were they simply a mechanism to funnel wealth upward?
(If you want to know which way they landed, the finished film features a sarcastic number called “The Greater Good,” in which a villainous businessman played by Donald Sutherland sells Brie Larson’s handler on the benefits of global capitalism.)
Baron and Caulfield hit upon the idea of an American scientist who initially thinks her work is improving the lives of Indian farmers, only to slowly discover that she’s complicit in their exploitation. With Monsanto becoming public enemy No. 1 for well-read liberals around this time, they decided their heroine should be a food scientist who invents a new kind of rice that’s better in every way — except for the fact that it can’t be replanted.
“We had this character, and we really just liked her,” Baron says. “We sat down and wrote the whole movie as a story, and we thought, Ah, we’re done. We were completely blind to the difficulties of trying to say, ‘We want to do a musical and we’re going to shoot in India and it’s going to be original songs.’ Nobody would even go near it — ‘Why are you asking us to read a story about a musical?’”
The problem was, they had no songs. And while there are some people in Los Angeles who would theoretically hand over their millions to finance an indie-movie musical, the number of people who would do that without hearing the music first is approximately zero. Even after the story turned into a finished script with detailed explanations of the songs, they had no backers.
“I will say I really understand why there aren’t many independent original musicals,” Caulfield said, laughing. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”
The duo spent almost three years pitching songwriters on Basmati Blues, eventually prevailing thanks to the classic Hollywood combination of enthusiasm, idealism, and connections. Baron’s brother knew a guy who played poker with Pearl Jam, and got the script into the hands of guitarist Stone Gossard. Music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg had worked with a songwriter who was friends with the country band Sugarland. David Baerwald, who wrote “Come What May” for Moulin Rouge, happened to be sitting next to Greenberg at a restaurant. All of them agreed to contribute songs without any guarantees the movie would ever get made.
Though Baron and Caulfield had the songs, or at least sketches of songs, it still took the couple a few more years to secure financing. A $25,000 grant from Film Independent helped, as did an infusion from their old friend, Swiss documentarian Ruedi Gerber. But what sealed it was a meeting with L.A. philanthropist Jeffrey Soros through another friend, screenwriter and If I Did It ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves, whose family had fled Hungary alongside the Soroses. “Pablo arranged dinner and we got together and pitched Jeffrey, and he was really intrigued,” Caulfield recalled. “It only took me two years after that dinner to get him to read the script.” Eventually Soros not only agreed to fund the film; he also came aboard as a producer.
Everyone agreed the movie would live or die depending on who was cast in the lead role of the American food scientist. Vocal dubbing was one Bollywood tradition the filmmakers didn’t want to emulate, so whoever they chose needed to be able to sing. She also needed to be famous enough to make the backers happy, but not too famous to go to India to work on a small movie. And, in a decision that would prove fateful, she had to be American.
“In terms of getting the film made, we had to cast that Western lead because the film is made for the Western audience,” Caulfield said. “It’s definitely something we want to share with everybody, but when Hollywood’s making this movie, we had to get that right, you know?”
Brie Larson, who had released a pop album in her teens and was getting major buzz around town for her role in Short Term 12, hit all those qualifications. Though Larson was being heavily courted at the time, she wasn’t initially on the list of actresses who were “backable,” but Soros made an exception.
Contemporary reports about the casting noted that Larson was “about to get a push along the lines of Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain,” but the filmmakers were eager to dispel the implication — well, my implication — that there was anything careerist about her taking the lead role in a film produced by George Soros’s nephew.
“Rather than calculation, I think it was a lack of calculation,” Baron said. “She didn’t know who was producing it. She’s just a very honest and straightforward person: She read it and responded to it because it made sense for her. She wanted to be part of a film that used music and some dance and was about people coming together.”
Despite bombing his initial audition, Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar eventually won the role of the male lead thanks to his improv background and chemistry with Larson. Scott Bakula came aboard as Larson’s father, while Donald Sutherland became the baddie, even picking up the cost of his character’s wardrobe himself. It was time to make Basmati Blues.
Throughout their long quest for financing, Baron and Caulfield would travel to India, scouting locations, making contacts in the southern Indian film industry, and soaking up ideas. (Ambudkar’s character’s hatred of the Taj Mahal came from a man they met in real life.) Tollywood actress Lakshmi Manchu, who would end up playing Ambudkar’s sister, introduced them to her family, who washed their American guests’ feet and taught them how to eat with their hands. “We really wanted to convey that in the film,” Caulfield said. “The sense of welcome you get there is unbelievable.”
“We eat with our hands a lot now here too,” added Baron.
Six months of preproduction had yielded a variety of locations in Tamil Nadu, in the southeast. But shooting was set to begin in April, a time of year when most local productions decamp to places like Thailand. The filmmakers soon found out why.
“It was so hot and so dry that all of the places we had scouted were dead,” Caulfield explained. “There was no life. We’re shooting a movie called Basmati Blues and it’s just barren, dirty, dead fields.”
With two weeks before filming began, they scrambled to assemble an entire film’s worth of new locations, eventually finding what they were looking for in Kerala, a few hundred miles west. Kerala is wet year-round, but it’s just as hot; Baron notes that the movie’s big crowd scene was shot on “the second-hottest day on the planet,” in a fish market.
Once the heat stopped, the rain started. The last weeks of the shoot coincided with monsoon season, which meant 40 days of relentless horizontal rain. Sets flooded. Crews had to be evacuated. By the end of the shooting schedule, it was unclear if there was enough usable footage to turn into a movie. As Caulfield put it, “We got blown out of India.”
The couple tried stitching together what they had, but it was a mess. Crucial shots were missing, and the first song didn’t show up until half an hour in, a kiss of death for a musical. “It hurt our hearts to know that we’d worked so hard for all that time, and we didn’t get to finish,” Caulfield said. “It was killing everybody.”
The couple was pulling long days in the editing room, and then working nights as their own VFX supervisors — a long, laborious process, but one that helped them realize exactly what was missing from the film. With Soros’s blessing, they came up with a plan: Figure out a way to raise more money, then go back to India for reshoots.
Luckily, the financiers were onboard. “They had watched us closely enough to know that we would always opt for trying whatever it took even though it was a little bit of madness,” Baron said. “Then ultimately, there would be a midnight call from one of them having a passionate moment and saying, ‘I feel like there’s something missing. This is what we set out to do and I feel like we have to do it.’”
By the time reshoots began in 2015, nearly all of the crewmembers, Indian and American, returned. Larson did too, even though by this point she had already shot Room, the movie that would win her the Oscar, and there was nothing in her contract that said she had to come back. Had the actress wanted Basmati Blues to stay hidden forever, she could have easily let it. That she didn’t is perhaps proof she really did care about the movie’s message.
Throughout all of this, the world did not hear much about Basmati Blues. That changed in early November 2017, when the film’s international trailer hit the web, with shots of Larson gasping at spicy food, learning traditional dances, and leading a charge of Indian villagers. A chyron promised, “One woman will fight for justice.” To many viewers in both India and America, it seemed a straightforward recitation of white-savior tropes. As BuzzFeed put it, “People Are Cringing Hard At Brie Larson’s New Movie ‘Basmati Blues’ And Its Tacky Portrayal of India.” (It’s worth noting that this outrage was not unanimous. After reading my post, an Indian-American reader let me know he considered the response to the film, at least when it was coming from white people, more offensive than the film itself — as if it was totally crazy that an A-list actress would want to be in a movie about India.)
Baron and Caulfield almost immediately put out a statement apologizing for the trailer, and reiterated to me that they had nothing to do with it. This is apparently common on smaller movies, where filmmakers don’t usually have veto power on international marketing, the thinking being that the marketers understand their country better than the filmmakers would.
“Were we blindsided?” Baron asked, rhetorically. “Yes, because a trailer was released that makes it look like this is a film about a white savior, and that’s not what the film is about.”
“The opposite of what the film is about,” Caulfield added. “The irony of making a movie where the whole point is to explore our responsibility to each other as human beings, and the pitfalls of people in the West not taking responsibility for how their work affects other people, and then we’re the white-savior movie? It was surreal. I actually can’t stress enough how horrifying that was. It was like being punched in the stomach all day long.”
Baron and Caulfield say they reached out to their Indian cast members to apologize, and were told not to worry. Lakshmi Manchu got them in touch with an Indian PR firm, who gave them a bit of free advice: Just sit and wait for the storm to blow over. The strategy seems to have worked: Though American reviews for Basmati Blues have not been positive, critics seem to agree the racial politics are the least of the movie’s problems. As the Village Voice puts it, “No character is as broad a caricature as its white lead.”
Near the end of our interview, I asked the filmmakers if they thought the uproar was just about the trailer, or if it had them reconsidering anything about the film itself.
Caulfield said she kept coming back to the white horse that Larson’s character rides while she rescues Ambudkar in the movie’s climax. What the filmmakers saw as an inversion of traditional romance tropes — finally, the girl rescuing the guy — viewers saw as a symbol of white purity. “The reason it’s a white horse is because in weddings in a lot of India, you ride in on a white horse. It was symbolic of romance and weddings and love. It just hit me so wrong that it got turned into this emblem of whiteness. Would I do that differently? I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t know how to answer that.”
“I don’t know if it would have mattered,” Baron said. “There are some people who want to be upset about people in the West making a film set in India. And they have the right to do that. I wonder if there’s just some built-in percentage that wouldn’t like it no matter what color the horse was, you know?”