In recent years, actor Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane) has mainly worked on serious arthouse films telling dark stories mostly set in poor communities. She admits to liking the change of pace offered by her new film, the romantic comedy UnIndian. Director Anupam Sharma is keeping the film’s tone very light-hearted, and Chatterjee's character, Meera, does not fit the “usual western view of brown women”.
“Meera is not suffering or downtrodden, being beaten up or trafficked,” Chatterjee says during a lunch break under canvass in a park in Sydney's Coogee. “She has a great job, is independent, a single mum and happy with her life. When she meets someone, she is the one who is economically better off.”
And who is playing Will, the man that sweeps Meera off her feet? Well, that would be the cricketer and legendary fast bowler Brett Lee, so, yes, this is a cross-cultural love story. Lee works as a cricket commentator on television, has been in the news for decades and once had a cameo on a Bollywood film, so he’s no stranger to being in front of a camera, but…
“If you told me five or six years ago I would have a lead role in a movie I would have laughed,” he says. “Six months ago, too, probably. In the last 10 years, I’ve had a number of Bollywood offers but the scripts haven’t suited me. This film is Australian with an Indian flavour, and after reading it several times I could see myself playing Will. He’s what I am as a person and the way the two different cultures interact in the film is what I stand for.”
Lee felt “overwhelming awe” when he first visited India in 1994, he says, and has been in love with the culture since: “You could throw a million words into one sentence and still not come close to describing what the place is like.”
Before cameras rolled, Lee and Chatterjee worked with acting coach Kevin Jackson, who was closely associated with NIDA for many years before going solo.
“The best advice I got from Kevin was to just be myself, to not think about the lines but to feed off Tannishtha,” says Lee. “Working with her was a chance to work with someone at the top of her game.”
He says acting is not entirely different from being on a cricket pitch, “I played for Australia for 13 years and when you walk out and 90,000 people are watching, you have to be a showman and play a character. And in cricket, if the 11 people on the field don’t believe in each other and themselves, they are not effective: everyone has to be on the same page and willing to help out a mate. It’s the same on a film set.”
When Sharma sent Chatterjee the script – after befriending her on Facebook – he didn’t tell her Lee was already cast.
“Brett is very, very popular in India and any actress would say ‘yes’ to the role just because he was in it,” says Chatterjee, laughing.
“In cinema, it’s not the training you’ve had, it’s your life experience that impacts your acting. Living life makes you more confident and makes you understand how people act in certain situations. Yes, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of the camera but when I started training at the age of 19, I didn’t understand a lot of things.”
Chatterjee lives in Mumbai but describes herself as a gypsy. She lived for a decade in Delhi, where she studied acting, but her childhood also encompassed Japan, Kenya and, for eight months, Australia, namely Perth.
“Immigration is newer here [compared to the UK] and people are more linked to modern India and current social values,” she replies when asked her impressions of Australia’s Indian diaspora. “Many studied here and are very successful.”
She says she didn’t baulk at Sharma’s first-time feature director status. “Some of my most interesting experiences as an actor have been with first time directors. Often they have such enthusiasm and passion, and are more open to suggestions and collaboration.”
Sharma is far from inexperienced, though. He is well known in the Australian production scene as a conduit into India, as a producer and for assisting Indian filmmakers using Australian locations. (His decade-long relationship with Lee is a result of his work on commercials.) He was also chief judge and an advisor on the SBS talent series Bollywood Star; UnIndian’s cast includes finalists Sarah Roberts and Sharon Johal.
“I specialised as a director [when studying film] and one of my biggest frustrations when servicing other productions was the director inside me trying to get out,” says Sharma. That said, directing a rom-com gives him “somewhere to hide”, he says, unlike if he was working on a psychological thriller or some other genre. And some of his crew have years of features behind them: Muriel’s Wedding cinematographer Martin McGrath, for example, and Marcus D’Arcy, who received an Oscar nomination for Babe alongside another editor.
Sharma expresses much delight at tapping into Australian/India acting talent – he names Nicholas Brown, Pallavi Sharda and Arka Das – and drawing on the colour and movement of his race and its idiosyncrasies for laughs.
“The comedy does not come from misunderstanding each other’s culture,” he says. “The film is reflective. It is the Indian cast who joke about the degree to which Indian girls are set up by their parents and how Indians constantly talk about being more Indian, or less Indian, or Aussie Indian. Many Indians can’t differentiate between what’s politically correct and what’s not, and a lot of jokes come from that, too.”
Later, once cast, crew – and I – have moved to a smart house on a hill around the corner so work can recommence, I comment to Sharma on how it appears to be so relaxed on set.
“What is crucial to me is that it is a modern Australian film that’s all about escape, entertainment and celebration, as The Sapphires and Red Dog were. We’re having fun behind and in front of the camera… We have to have fun for the camera to capture that feeling.”
Sydneysiders may have seen the production trucks at Maroubra, Glebe, Kirribilli or Parramatta, where a huge India festival was staged with hundreds of extras. The film wrapped on November 28.
UnIndian is written by Thushy Sathi, managing director of AccessMQ, the commercial arm of Macquarie University. In other words, he moonlights as a scriptwriter. He came to Australia as a child, is Sri Lankan by ancestry, and is married to an Indian. Their daughter Maya is playing the Meera’s daughter.
“My wife took our two kids to the casting session just for the experience. Maya got a call back and did a scene with Brett and Tannishtha and Anu felt the chemistry worked. We wouldn’t encourage her to be an actress because we don’t know enough about it, but she was so excited we couldn’t say no.”
UnIndian is the first film financed by the Australian Indian Film Fund, set up by business people to privately finance Aussie films with an Indian flavour.