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A modern-day rom-com: UNindian

Whether it’s welcoming Bollywood crews to Australia or casting fast-bowler Brett Lee as his leading man, director Anupam Sharma has always gotten a kick out of pushing boundaries. And with his latest flick UNindian, he may have hit a six.

While Lee is the shining beacon for all cricket fans to swarm to, it’s the chemistry and message at the beating (and let’s face it, dancing) heart of UNindian that’s really grabbing the spotlight.

Already it’s drawn comparisons to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham as a cross-cultural romantic comedy. Except that it has something those films don’t: it’s uniquely Australian.

In UNindian, Lee takes on his first major film role as Will, an affable bloke who teaches Aussie slang to international students in Sydney (phrases like ‘he’s a tosser’ and the proper way to pronounce ‘maaaaaate’).

In one of the more original meet-cutes of late, he has coloured spice thrown over him by single working mother Meera (Tannishtha Chatterjee) during Holi festival and is almost immediately smitten. But a white man asking an Indian Australian woman out isn’t necessarily as easy as he thought.

Despite Australia’s multicultural make-up, producer Lisa Duff says there actually aren’t that many cross-cultural stories like UNindian in Australia.

“There’s still a predominance of stories depicting white Australia on screen,” she says. “We don’t look at that merging of cultures or the humour of what happens from that, especially.”

But it was something the filmmakers of UNindian really wanted to tap into.

“As a film professional and as someone who has Indian background… that was one of the driving forces, to show the diversity of 2015 of the streets of Sydney,” Sharma says. “We rarely see that.”

Following premiere screenings throughout the country, the cast and crew have been delighted to hear that UNindian is resonating not just with Indian Australians, but Greek Australians, Italian Australians and more.

Lee says: “We had a lot of (people) coming up to us and saying I can actually relate to this, this is what my family’s like.”

The opportunity to tell a cross-cultural story is actually one of the three main reasons Lee decided to take the leap into acting.

The second was that it wasn’t a Bollywood movie, but an Australian story that showed the Indian culture Lee is so passionate about (he’s toured there multiple times as a test cricketer).

And the third reason was that Lee knew he could trust Sharma, having worked with him on a few Bollywood cameos and television commercials.

Although he says he was well aware of his lack of experience on movie sets.

“Everytime I’ve gone onto the cricket field I’ve been as prepared as I possibly can… (and) I said I want exactly the same when we go to film,” Lee said.

So he took a crash course with a couple of “NIDA bigwigs”, as Sharma says, “just to tell Brett and I whether we will have egg on our face or it will happen” and got a big thumbs up.

Lee’s performance is now raising a few eyebrows, but for all the right reasons.

Sharma says it’s one of the things he is hearing most from journalists – how pleasantly surprised they were to see Lee holding his own on the big screen.

But the fast-bowler was always a no-brainer for Sharma. From a director’s perspective, he knew Lee could act and “lights up everything”.

Meanwhile from a financial point of view (Sharma is also a producer), he knew the kind of fan following Lee has.

“‘Brett Lee in his first lead role’ would also grab attention from people (and) you know how hard it is to stand out with all these films releasing every day.”

It’s perhaps not a surprising move from Sharma, who was part of the push to bring Bollywood crew into Australia in 1998, who did the first ad campaign for India by NSW, and who most recently, set up the Australian Indian Film Fund (UNindian is their first feature).

“My team and I always get a kick out of doing something new, not for the sake of it, but to enrich Australian film culture,” Sharma said.

“(So) I’m telling all the Indians and the ethnic minorities in Australia, to go and watch the film, and if you don’t, than don’t complain that you don’t see our stories on screen. If people support us then we can do more films like this.”

UNindian is in cinemas nationally from Thursday 15 October 2015.