- Funny Boy
- Directed by Deepa Mehta
- Written by Deepa Mehta and Shyam Selvadurai
- Starring Brandon Ingram, Ali Kazmi and Agam Darshi
- Classification PG; 109 minutes
We’ve seen Funny Boy’s queer coming-of-age story a million times before, except not exactly like this.
Based on Shyam Selvadurai’s award-winning 1994 postcolonial novel of the same name, Deepa Mehta’s new drama centres around a young Tamil boy’s exploration of his sexual identity. The wealthy Arjie (played by Arush Nand and Brandon Ingram) grows up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during the heightened Sinhala-Tamil tensions that lead to the 1983 riots and pogrom against the Tamil people.
The film begins with the queer-kid-goes-against-traditional-gender-norms stuff that these days feels contrived in depiction. Arjie prefers playing among his female peers – dressing up like a bride in their mock-wedding games while wearing lipstick – and refuses to play cricket with the boys, all as his disapproving father, Appa (Ali Kazmi), frowns in the background.
Yet, it’s important to contextualize Selvadurai’s story, given queer cinema’s postmillennial evolution and focus on contemporary stories. Rarely do we see period movies depicting the queer South Asian experience and its specificities, and the operation of gender norms from a particular time and place. Rarely do we see the clash between homosexuality and South Asian collectivism, how social pressures and the influence of family can crush those with supposedly transgressive desires.
Appa tries to put a stop to his son’s expressions of femininity, while the boy’s mother, Amma (Nimmi Harasgama), tries to mediate. But it is Arjie’s radical aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) who supports him and involves him in community theatre.
These family clashes provide the fodder for just one of the film’s many tension-fuelled dynamics. Arjie’s repressed homosexuality takes something of a backseat as the Tamil and Sinhalese characters clash. And Arjie’s parents’ diverging political beliefs make for serious family drama when an ex-Tamil Tiger joins their family business, further dividing them.
Meanwhile, Arjie’s role as a double-minority protagonist should connect Funny Boy’s audience to the intersection of homosexuality and the Tamil experience. As a young adult, Arjie’s romance with a Sinhalese boy, Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), does the trick for the most part, especially moments of levity offered by their forbidden chemistry – with the two idolizing David Bowie and quoting Oscar Wilde – and a powerfully sombre sequence in which the family discovers in horror Arjie’s true sexual orientation.
Yet there is so much going on in this film, much of it so rich in detail, that you wonder how better the original material might work as a television series.
Aunt Radha’s struggle, for instance, features prominently in Funny Boy’s first leg, when the character reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage, but is then shelved for most of the story, until her role is again necessitated by the plot. This structural slackness may have worked in Selvadurai’s novel, which unfolds in loose sketches, but the screenplay, co-written by Selvadurai and Mehta, doesn’t so much dangle its multiple narrative threads as it scatters them into an uneven patchwork pattern. Neither director nor co-writer can decide whether they’re making a story about a young gay boy growing up in Sri Lanka or a political family drama depicting the 1983 pogrom. The way it is written, it cannot be both, at least not without sacrificing some dramatic tension, emotional oomph and political nuance.
For example, a scene in which Radha’s mother confronts the parents of her Sinhalese boyfriend about their ethnicity results in a tense, slur-heavy fight with the boyfriend’s father before his mom interjects and invites her in for tea. The remarkable difference between hostility and kindness of the two Sinhalese parents, who clearly don’t agree on how to interact with Tamils, is fascinating, but the scene isn’t given proper time to breathe and strike its dramatic chord. Equally short and disappointing is Arjie’s first physically intimate encounter – often a watershed moment for oppressed queer youth.
Like Water and her adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mehta shot Funny Boy in Sri Lanka and cast talent from the country and its diaspora – decisions that have come under controversy and sparked calls for a boycott. Tamils have criticized Mehta’s casting of Sinhalese people for Tamil characters and the actors’ poor grasp of the Tamil language; it is a bitter irony considering that the story depicts the erasure of Tamil culture and existence by the Sinhala.
What’s equally questionable is filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s involvement; her production company, ARRAY, will release the film through Netflix in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The pioneering American director, a vocal supporter for onscreen representation, might have wanted to question the casting decisions of Funny Boy before taking it on.
But nobody is at more fault here than Mehta herself, who says she tried but failed to find suitable Tamil actors. How hard did she try, exactly? She has said that the three Tamil actors recommended to her all faced insurmountable problems to appear in her film and that she also held auditions in London and Sri Lanka. In the Toronto Star last week, Tamil-Canadian comedian and artist Sunthar Vykunthanathan criticized Mehta’s rationale of focusing on casting queer actors over Tamil actors, as it implies there were no suitable queer Tamil performers available for the job.
Mehta’s respected position in the Canadian film industry has been built around a career of bringing authentic Indian stories to Western audiences and shedding light on political issues of her homeland. But this does not excuse her from making political mistakes in her work, and she should own up to her failure in properly representing the Tamil people.
No matter its formal strengths and weaknesses, Funny Boy is a loaded cultural product. Its elevated position should be questioned – it being a unique, intersectional work, an otherwise thoughtful film about an underrepresented political tragedy and Canada’s official submission to the Academy Awards. There is no easy answer on how – or whether – viewers should support it, as Funny Boy perpetuates the very political issues it so harrowingly depicts.
Funny Boy opens in Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax Nov. 27. It will air on CBC Dec. 4 at 8 p.m., the same day it becomes available to stream on CBC Gem