Tuesday, 3 November 2015

UNindian (2015) - Movie Review

Of all of the people who suddenly find it within themselves to become an actor, sports athletes are probably amongst those who have the least business doing so despite how well some of them turn out. Don’t get me wrong, Vinnie Jones has given us some truly badass roles during his time, but this kind of illustrates how limited the idea is: The majority of the better athletes-cum-actors mainly work in more action-packed fare; anything else, not so much, and it usually fails whenever something more serious is attempted. As such, today’s film serving as the cinematic debut for former Australian cricketer Brett Lee is a rather daunting prospect, despite how the prevalence of the film’s poster has tried to make me acclimatise to the idea. Still, it’s not as if I don’t readily welcome my pessimism being proven wrong around here, so I can only hope that this won’t be as painful as its own potential.

The plot: Meera (Tannishtha Chatterjee), an Indian living in Australia, is under constant pressure from her parents (Supriya Pathak and Akash Khurana) to marry a nice Indian man and recover from how her previous marriage turned out. She soon finds someone, in the form of Aussie English teacher Will (Brett Lee) but neither of them know if their courtship will be accepted by the rather prominent Indian community in the area. As Will tries to learn more about Meera’s culture, and Meera struggles with the expectations of her family versus her own wishes, maybe there is a chance that the cultural divide between them can be bridged.

Well, after seeing the poster for the film all over the place, and being confronted with the idea of seeing ex-cricketer Brett Lee as the leading man in a movie, I was pleasantly surprised at how he was as an actor here. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t completely blow me out of the water with his performance, but considering what happens when non-actors usually think they can be actors, this is better than I expected. There’s also the added bonus that, if you really think about it, casting Brett Lee in this movie kind of makes sense. The entire film is about cultural relations, specifically those between Australia and India, and what’s one of the big things the two nations share? Their love for cricket. Alongside Lee is Chatterjee, whose warmth and charm more than makes up for the male lead’s shortcomings.

Going back to the idea of what two seemingly separate entities share, and once again delving into that oh-so-exciting of realm of 'Things That Shaped My Experience Of The Film That I Doubt Anyone Else Had', it’s Subjectivity Time again! This, however, enters into a realm of art imitates life in one of the more surreal ways possible; it’s like watching Birdman all over again in terms of moments that weirdly spoke to me directly as a member of the audience. As Will goes on his journey of trying to better understand Indian culture as a means to better connect with Meera, he goes along to the screening of a Bollywood film, the first he’s ever seen. The film he goes to see is 2014’s Kick starring Salman Khan, coincidentally the first Bollywood film that I myself watched in the cinemas (or anywhere to its completion, really) at the exact same cinema chain that he did. As someone who, for better or for worse, has learnt an awful lot about the inner cogs of the world around him through films, this feels like a genuine moment to me and most likely a common scenario in terms of peoples’ first experience with any foreign culture. Of course, as that scene goes on, it gets weird in a more general sense as the film just straight-up shows wholesale clips from Kick and then has Will and Meera re-enacting the dance sequence for Jumme Ki Raat. Would’ve been nice if they went with something a bit more original and less like an internet review reference joke, but it works overall nonetheless.

Don’t let that fool you for a second, though; there is a very intelligent way of thinking at work here in terms of the film’s core message. The majority of the film that doesn’t involve rom-com shenanigans examines the cultural relations between Aussie and Indian cultures, their respective attitudes towards each other and even towards themselves. Going with this idea already shows a certain synergy between the Indian director and his adopted country, as Australian seems to be at its best when it deals with the Australian cultural palette and how varied and conflicted it is. Thushy Sathi, Vikram Singh and Rohan Mirchandaney, through their combined work on the script, portray why cultural assimilation can be a good thing but can also turn out for the worst. For the former, we have elements like Will teaching an Aussie English class at UNSW, and for the latter, a rather uncomfortable moment where DK acts offended at a red dot joke but ultimately doesn’t know why he’s offended because he doesn’t really know its cultural significance.

However, as the film reaches its final reel (*SPOILERS*, by the way), we get a very murky look at the result of some Indian traditions that, in the film’s eyes, should rightfully be set aside through Meera’s ex-husband. Now, it would have been easier than boiling eggs to make him the out-and-out bad guy (something that is done with Will’s superior Mr. Saunders when it comes to a sub-plot about Will’s class), he comes across more tragic than anything else. He is depicted as the by-product of familial and societal pressures that ended up suppressing his own nature, resulting in someone who is desperate to fulfil his role within the ‘traditional’ family values he’s had drilled into him all his life. He ends up needing to play the father figure at any cost because, when all is said and done, it’s the only thing that makes sense to him anymore. Once the revelation is made to Meera’s parents about what exactly happened between her and her ex-husband, her mother’s subsequent reaction to it might be the only time I haven’t felt immediate anger towards a character for spewing the same offensive nonsense as so many others. If anything, and not even in a patronising fashion, I felt sorry for her as it isn’t something said out of hate but out of desperation, creating yet another tragic character in the process.

As if to contrast all of these dark undertones, the main romance between Will and Meera has a lot of issues. Keep in mind what I said about Brett Lee as an actor when I say this, but he is an incredibly creepy romantic lead on screen. Even with how unintentionally alarming some intended ‘romantic’ films have been recently, this almost enters the realms of Zeffirelli’s Endless Love with how much of a stalker Will comes across as thanks to the dialogue; all that’s missing is a misguided act of arson. Aside from the numerous meet-cutes that never stop being awkward, there’s also the scene where Meera’s daughter asks him why she likes her mother. Directly taken from the film itself, this is what he responds with: He likes her because of how she makes him feel, how she smells and because of the relationship she has with her daughter. While that last one is somewhat forgivable, even if only by comparison, the first two sound like mildly cleaner bits of dialogue meant for Multiple Miggs, and the fact that the film makes a call back to this exchange only serves to highlight how tonally wrong in the head his character is as a whole. On a far lesser note, there’s a rather unfortunate feeling permeating the film that it is mainly serving as a PSA for certain places, like the University of New South Wales and Cochlear. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these groups; it’s just that some of the dialogue involving them can feel forced and shoe-horned in just to give them a bit more positive press.

All in all, I’m seriously torn about this one. On one hand, this is the kind of cultural analysis and societal commentary that Australian cinema thrives on and it does so brilliantly with some surprisingly murky subtext. But on the other hand, the core romance that ties the film together goes into Constant Stares During Biology Class territory with how badly Will is written as a romantic lead. At the very least, the places where the writing works are really damn good and make this worth seeing for them alone.

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