It sounds like the ultimate white savior movie.
Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson plays a young scientist who has created a new fast-growing super-rice. She comes to India to convince villagers to switch to this grain. There’s Bollywood-style singing, dancing — and in one scene she even rides a white horse!
Called Basmati Blues, the Hollywood film was made in 2013, before Larson was a star. But it’s just now coming out. When the trailer was released in November, with scenes of Larson dressed in elaborate Indian costumes and recoiling from spicy food, Indians around the world took offense, calling out its stereotypes and cliches.
The movie is finally being released in the U.S. on Friday, playing in select cinemas and available via video on demand. Critics have not been kind. The L.A. Times called it “a big miss,” while the Village Voice wondered how it “this thing got financed and finished.”
In the film, Larson’s character, Dr. Linda Watt, is sent to the southern state of Kerala in India. Gurgon, her greedy corporate boss, played the actor Donald Sutherland, wants her to convince local farmers to switch to the new rice: “India: 500 million farmers, 1.1 billion rice eaters, all of them … potential customers,” Gurgon declares with glee.
The problem is that the rice she’s recommending could financially destroy the very people she means to help. The rice is sterile. If farmers grew it, they’d need to spend a lot of money to buy new seeds every year.
Along the way, she falls in love with a farmer, who actually trained as a scientist but had to drop out of university. Rajit, as he’s called, is played by American-born actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, who’s appeared in the movies Pitch Perfect and on TV shows like The Mindy Project.
The controversy around the film started in November, after the international trailer was released. That’s where the white horse made its appearance, which Linda rides while trying to halt a train loaded with the super-rice.
“It plays to stereotypes of an exotic but backward people just waiting for a white person to swoop in and save them,” says Bengaluru-based cartoonist, Manoj Vijayan, in an interview with NPR.
That sentiment was shared by people across Twitter.
Following the backlash, director Dan Baron and his wife, Monique Caulfield, who produced the film, issued an apology and withdrew the trailer. In a statement to the blog Refinery29 in November, they said: “We deeply regret any offense caused by the Basmati Blues trailer. We have heard a number of voices that have understandably reacted to a trailer that is not representative of the film as a whole.”
In January, a new trailer was introduced to the Basmati Blues website, with the white horse scene deleted.
The criticism on Twitter however, raged on.
The film’s white savior message isn’t the only issue that rankles. “The script seems to have gone overboard with its lazy cliches, the lame jokes and the stereotyping,” says Vijayan. “It’s a sadly missed opportunity to tell a story with some nuance and ends up pandering to tired old preconceptions.”
In the scene where Larson first meets Rajit, he greets her while hanging upside down from the roof of a train while she’s seated at the window, as though hanging like possums on trains was perfectly normal in India.
In an interview with NPR, Jaya Padmanabhan, an immigration columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, shared some advice for the filmmakers: “Someone should tell Baron and Jeff Dorchen [who wrote the screenplay] to visit India without a camera obstructing their worldview.”
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. Her work has appeared in The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t