unINDIAN

October 16, 2015
Brett Lee in 'UNindian' (2015)
Brett Lee in 'UNindian' (2015)

If there were an Academy Award for product placement, Anupam Sharma’s unINDIAN would be this year’s hot favourite. This self-confessed “frothy” flick is not going to win any awards for acting, directing or scriptwriting, but when it comes to acknowledging sponsors it is in a class of its own.

unINDIAN is an attempt to make a cross-cultural movie that appeals to both Australian and Indian audiences, and spreads mutual understanding. It is the inaugural production of the Australia India Film Fund, founded by IT tycoon, Devendra Gupta. If it succeeds there are plans to make another three features.

In principle this is an initiative one can applaud, but the first venture is not as “spicy”, as advertised, rather an indigestible mixture of sugar and cheese. The lightest of romantic comedy-dramas, it tells the story of Will (Brett Lee), an English Language teacher at the University of NSW (sponsor alert!), who suffers an attack of love-at-first-sight when he meets Meera (Tannishtha Chatterjee), an Indian migrant who works for Cochlear (sponsor alert 2).

Will has devised a uni course in which he teaches migrants the joys of “Australian English”, providing words and phrases that will help them speak like Paul Hogan. The course is wildly popular, although not with Will’s boss, John Saunders (John Howard), who wants to close it down. I must confess a certain sympathy for Mr. Saunders’s position.

Will has two supposedly loveable friends, a white Aussie slob named Mitch (Adam Dunn); and T.K. (Arka Das), a mercurial Indian-Aussie, who is filming his own cooking program. It’s their job to help him figure out how to impress an Indian girl.

The object of Will’s affections, Meera, is a single mum, with a ten-year-old daughter, named Smitha, (Maya Sathi). Meera’s parents have also come to live in Australia, and have got into the habit of plaguing their offspring with ‘hilarious’, early morning home invasions. Their dearest wish is to see their Meera married off to a nice Indian boy with a high-paying job.

The obvious candidate is Samir (Nicholas Brown), a hunky surgeon. Alas, Samir is also an arrogant, preening bore, quite unlike salt-of-the earth, Will, who is deemed unacceptable by Meera’s relatives, and the migrant community, because he is not Indian. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether true love wins out over ethnic peer pressure.

The missing element is Meera’s former husband, and Smitha’s father, Deepak (Gulshan Grover), who is not untouchable, but unmentionable. The ghastly secret behind Meera’s divorce is that Deepak is gay. When he does appear it’s obvious he’s a bad guy because he has the kind of beard and moustache preferred by vaudeville villains. We know he’s gay because he seems to dress exclusively in pink – always a giveaway.

As Will and Meera get acquainted they visit each other at work, which allows opportunities to assess the general excellence of UNSW and Cochlear. They also manage to visit some of Sydney’s tourist spots, as promoted by Destination NSW (sponsor alert 3).

Brett Lee, playing his first, and possibly last, lead role, represents another kind of product placement. His character may be a teacher by profession, but he spends a lot of time practicing in the nets. As a test cricketer, Lee was one of Australia’s most successful fast bowlers. As an actor he is an excellent test cricketer. There is nothing in the script to ignite his inner Marlon Brando.

When the director made a guest appearance dressed as a guru, I began to wonder if the entire film was an elaborate joke, a satirical attempt to wed Bollywood’s worst cliches with Australian suburban realism. What Sharma hasn’t realised is that every true Aussie film nowadays has to wallow in death and tragedy. I doubt whether a state or federal funding body would ever support a film so overtly cheerful as unINDIAN.

There’s no reason why a movie can’t be both cheerful and good, but one suspects this confection is far too superficial to appeal to an Australian audience. At a time when a film such as The Lunch Box has been a world-wide hit, it’s a step backwards to present Indian characters as stereotypes.

In the near future there will be an increasing volume of cultural exchanges between Australia and India, but there’s no rule that says we had to to start dumb and gradually scale up. Sharma writes how he decided to omit some “deeper intellectual statements”, and go for a popular audience rather than the film festival crowd, but for a small-scale film it is quality that generates popularity. To second-guess what the public wants is as dangerous as a quiet chat with Ronnie Kray.

unINDIAN
Directed by Anupam Sharma
Written by Thushy Sathi
Starring Brett Lee, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Arka Das, Adam Dunn, Nicholas Brown, Maya Sathi, Sarah Roberts, John Howard, Supriya Pathak Kapur, Ashok Kurana, Gulshan Grover
Australia, rated M, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th October, 2015.