Paattu paadava? Shall I sing a song?
The voices of children ring out as we enter the world of Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy. The film’s establishing shots linger on the varied landscape before sweeping out to a panoramic view of children chasing a train close to the beach. The children enter the screen with their tuneless rendering of an old Tamil song by Kannadasan, written for the 1961 Tamil-language film Then Nilavu (Honeymoon). Curiously enough, that romantic comedy was where I first saw a separatist depicted in film. It was a caricatured Kashmiri rebel in a subplot of an otherwise standard romance partly set in Kashmir, a popular site for honeymoons at that time. The chorus of the song is a refrain in Mehta’s new film, creating a parallel between Kashmir and Sri Lanka, both tourist destinations with histories of rebellion and violence.
The visual storytelling in Funny Boy is seductive, and draws me in until I am pulled into the world of adults, and hear the Tamil words drop disjointedly, and sometimes unintelligibly. At first, I cringe, and then my stomach lurches as I realize that the whole film will go on like this.
The word was whispered amid shrugs and puzzled faces among some of the Tamil girls at my school in Colombo, Sri Lanka. One of them explained that the word was being used by the mobs as a shibboleth, a password to determine whether someone belonged to a group. The idea was that Tamils could not pronounce this Sinhala word for bucket. There were a few others, but this one stuck somehow.
That July, in 1983, Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamil homes and Tamil-owned businesses in Colombo, using voter registration lists to identify and target the victims. At the same time, a riot took place in Welikade Prison, where 53 Tamils held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were murdered by fellow inmates. While the exact number of Tamils murdered during what became known as Black July is not known, the number is estimated between 400 and 3,000.
My cohort returned after the pogroms, two classes of 30 students each reduced to one class of seven. Balthiya. The word ricocheted outside the walls of our school.
A word to taunt, to bully.
A word to hold suspended over young girls in a leering threat. (It would be many years before I understood the nature of it.) Over the next year my cohort grew to a single class of 30 students, but many of my closest friends never returned. The word balthiya had not been whispered for a long time, though it was not forgotten
Old hurts come back in the sound of creaking floorboards at night, in the sound of distant fireworks and helicopters flying overhead. I shake my head and sigh at the benign thing that wakes me, but the pounding panic takes a while to still, even 30 years later.
I wonder about the Tamil actors in Funny Boy, and if any of them felt old hurts at being asked to pass for Sinhalese. If any of them rehearsed the word balthiya under their breath.
Mehta’s film is based on a novel that draws heavily on its author Shyam Selvadurai’s life. It is a poignant coming-of-age story of a young gay man, Arjie Selvaratnam, alienated because of his ethnic identity and his homosexuality. Told through vignettes from the lives of the Selvaratnam family, it deals with complex issues of gender, internal family conflicts and the violence of Black July. Funny Boy is set in Sri Lanka, where the majoritarian state uses its constitution to linguistically marginalize its minorities and uses everyday language as a means of surveillance of those minorities. In Colombo, street signs containing Tamil words are repeatedly vandalized even today, and old hurts are resurrected.
Apart from the romantic relationships in the film, all encounters between Sinhalese and Tamils are portrayed in degrees of rancour, and so the film does not succeed in depicting the cosmopolitan Colombo it aspires to recreate. When, at the climax of the film, a neighbour apologetically rescues the Selvaratnams from an angry mob, his gesture seems empty, coming out of nowhere.
It is impossible to explain the intimate nature of the violence of Black July, and the gaslighting that followed for many Colombo Tamils, until you grasp that Colombo, as the centre of trade and a port city, housed a myriad of ethnic groups who intermingled at gatherings, ate each other’s food, celebrated each other’s festivals and married into each other’s families. The shibboleth was needed because we were not easy to tell apart.
There is a vast difference between learning a language as a cosmopolitan and learning a language because your survival may depend on it. Tamils in Colombo were more likely to be fluent in Sinhala than vice versa. I first watched Funny Boy in October through a pre-release link, and thought the linguistic imbalance was overlaid with irony, as non-Tamil actors such as Seema Biswas, Agam Darshi and Shivantha Wijesinghe struggled with the Tamil, and Tamil actors such as Arjun Wignaraja spoke Sinhala with practised ease. This was trauma made invisible, and yet intensely audible.
After the shocked response to the trailers was registered, Funny Boy was partially dubbed in order to correct the most egregious renderings of Tamil dialogue, and another layer was added to this curious writing over of our conflicts. While this has made the film considerably easier on Tamil ears, it does not address the casting choices that have left Tamils barely visible in a story about a Tamil family.
There are elements that make this film worth watching, though, including many performances and artistic choices that deserve recognition. Nimmi Harasagama, as Arjie’s mother, conveys the internal struggle of a woman on the verge of political awakening as she becomes estranged from her previously happy domesticity. Shivantha Wijesinghe plays Jegan, a friend of Arjie’s father, linked to a rebel group in Eelam, with a reverence and purposefulness that is most apparent in his silences and weighted gaze. Brandon Ingram and Rehan Mudannayake inhabit their roles as Arjie and his love interest Shehan, at times with archness, and at other times with vulnerability that show great promise. The film cannot be faulted for the competence of its actors.
The camera is at its most powerful when it scans a refugee camp set up in a churchyard. It visually narrates a story of its own, devoid of overindulgence that robs refugees of their dignity – as is so often the case in mainstream depictions of the dispossessed. Mehta’s cinematography here is reminiscent of David Lean’s Passage to India, or The Bridge on the River Kwai, but where Lean’s characters are dominated by a landscape intent on telling its own story, Mehta’s camera draws back from the brink of the epic, into a more intimate framing that resonates with a sense of place. There’s no denying this is a visually beautiful film.
There is even a wry commentary on capitalism as the cure-all for conflict, when Selvaratnam proffers his copy of a self-help book (by Dale Carnegie, no less) to Jegan, only to have Jegan turn the idea of “the man of action” to his own revolutionary aims. It is the capitalist Selvaratnam, wonderfully portrayed by Canadian Ali Kazmi, who is left unmoored, as Jegan moves forward with renewed purpose. There is no doubt that there are stories worth telling here.
Funny Boy is, of course, not a documentary, but it aims for a degree of verisimilitude, drawing deeply from its author’s own life. Yet even a film based on fiction is a document of its time, and this film is released at a moment when the lack of representation and the problems of hegemony are being challenged in mainstream filmmaking. The hurt and outrage at the release of the trailers arise from questions of inequitable practices that have entered public discourse. It only takes a few minutes of dialogue to see that Mehta had the opportunity to redress some of the inequity that the film seeks to portray, and instead reproduced it.
In not engaging thoughtfully with the criticisms levelled at her by Tamil youth on social media, Mehta ignores people heavily invested in the subject matter of the film. Many of her critics have devoted their lives to keeping the injustices perpetrated on Tamils in Sri Lanka on the international radar.
When Mehta couldn’t find Tamil actors in Toronto – home to the largest Tamil diaspora outside the homelands – I wonder whether she considered that perhaps she didn’t have enough access to the community to tell a story so closely tied to their trauma. Did they trust her to tell such a story? Without the onscreen inclusion of Tamil Canadians, the movie has become divisive.
As things stand, some community members have responded bitterly to the erasures in this film, and we Tamil Canadians will have to recover from that. We have heard people referred to as half-Tamils, when blood quantum laws are not a part of our culture. We have heard questions of whether people in the film look Tamil enough, when we all know better. Long after the film is released, and awards season is over, we will have to repair relationships, tend to each other’s hurts, heal and move on. My community will have to find ways to do that work. We have no other choice.
Nedra Rodrigo is co-founder of the Tamil Studies Symposium at York University in Toronto, a literary translator, and host of the bilingual (Tamil and English), inclusive literary series The Tam Fam Lit Jam.
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