Even before his movie debut in the film UnIndian, which is in cinemas from Thursday (August 18), Australian former cricketer Brett Lee had an army of fans in India – in fact, they make up the majority of his million-plus Twitter followers.
His popularity on the subcontinent stems, in part, of course, from his status as a cricketing legend – Lee is considered one of the sport’s two fastest bowlers, though his world record 161.8kph delivery remains unofficial as it took place in a charity match rather than a competitive game.
But the status he enjoys in India is also thanks to the song You're the One for Me, a duet he performed with Bollywood star Asha Bhosle in 2006. "I had a couple of producers I knew ask if I knew Bhosle," he says. "They were amazed when I told them I did and said they were interested in me doing a collaboration with her. They had a song in mind but I asked if they'd mind if I wrote one, so I got my guitar, wrote it in about 20 minutes and that same afternoon, I went and laid it down in the studio."
Ten years later, Lee is once again teaming up with Bollywood royalty, producer-director Anupam Sharma (Dil Chahta Hai, Heyy Babyy), for the romantic comedy UnIndian. The English-language film tells the story of the cultural challenges that Australian Will (Lee) and Indian Meera (Tannishtha Chatterjee) face as they embark on a relationship in Sydney.
Lee says the film marks the realisation of a long-standing dream.
“I’ve wanted to make a movie for a while but I’ve always either not had time, with the cricket, or the right script didn’t come along,” he says.
“Then the opportunity to work with Sharma came along. We’ve worked together on adverts before, and known each other over a decade, and I loved the script and gave it my best shot.”
Lee is no stranger to appearing in front of a camera – since his retirement from international cricket in 2012, he has worked as a commentator and appeared in several advertisements. However, he admits that starring in a movie was a new kind of challenge.
“I thought the hardest part would be memorising all the lines – there’s about 119 scenes,” he says. “But that actually came easier than the acting part: getting into the character.
“I’d only really done commercials previously, where it’s just a case of reading off a screen. But to be in that moment and fall in love on set and make people in the cinema go on that journey with you and believe you – that was the hardest part.
“Thankfully, Anupam’s a genius and really supported me and made me feel comfortable on set – and likewise, my co-star, Tannishtha Chatterjee, was really helpful.”
The movie was released in Australia in October last year, where Lee says it struck a chord with audiences from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
“It’s not just been Aussies or Indians who have been watching – it’s a story of any mixed-culture relationship,” he says.
“The movie really captures that side of Australian culture. I have friends in a similar situation to Will, who are dating Indian girls and have to deal with disapproving families, mothers who don’t want them to marry because they’re not Indian, or a doctor – that kind of thing.”
With the movie representing another ambition realised, Lee admits he has been fortunate with the life he has had. He says any youngster can emulate his success if they put their mind to it.
“My dream when I was 9 years old was to play for Australia and bowl at 160kph,” he says. “I achieved both and feel privileged and honoured to have done that – and now I’m in a movie, which is a dream, too,” he says.
“I always say to kids: ‘You should follow your dream.’ There are people out there who knock people who give it a go – they’re scared of failing, but failing is fine as long as you learn from it.
“I’d rather fail than not try. That’s why I did so well at cricket, because I was always pushing right to the edge.
“Now I’m in a new stage of my life and I want to walk that fine line just the same.”