Deepa Mehta on ‘Funny Boy’: It’s a Story About the Oppression of the Other

The well-known director, whose film is Canada’s 2021 Oscar entry, talks about the themes of the love between a Tamil and a Sinhala man and the Sri Lankan civil war, seen through the fortunes of a Tamil family.

Renowned Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s new film, Funny Boy, an adaptation of Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 book of the same title, is a coming-of-age story of Arjun  Chelvaratnam, or `Arjie’, a young Tamil boy in Sri Lanka, struggling to embrace his homosexuality in the folds of a loving heteronormative family and a world marked by entrenched prejudices. Encouraging him in his journey of self-discovery – Indian actor Arush Nand and Sri Lankan actor Brandon Ingram play the younger and the older Arjie, respectively – is his aunt and confidante, the persistently disruptive and high-spirited Radha, played by the striking Canadian-Sikh actor Agam Darshi.

Filmmaker Deepa Mehta. Photo: Janick Laurent

The personal is set against the larger political backdrop of the growing divide between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil community in the island nation, in the days leading up to the over 25-year-long, bloody civil war that erupted in 1983.

Even as the film elegantly recreates the beautiful mansions and languid lives of the privileged in the capital Colombo, it  is not squeamish about showing the grim shades of reality – the seething resentments and simmering violence deepening the ethnic divide, the call for a separate Tamil state and the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). No one can remain untouched by the politics of the times, however innocent, disinterested or apolitical they be.

But in Mehta’s film passion is a stronger force than politics. The film is about love in the time of identity politics. Radha’s own romance with a Sinhala man becomes a precursor to Arjie’s love story, framed with sensitivity and compassion.

Funny Boy is Canada’s official contender in the race for the best foreign film Oscar in 2021. It has been acquired by celebrated US filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s independent distribution company ARRAY, whose thrust has been on BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) and women’s cinema. The film opens on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in Canada on December 4 and plays internationally – in UK, US, New Zealand and Australia – on Netflix on December 10, which happens to be observed as Human Rights Day. On that day, Funny Boy will also have its India premiere as the opening night film at the I-View World Human Rights Film Festival in New Delhi, something that Mehta is excited about: “I feel touched. For me, the film is so much about rights.”

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In a wide-ranging Zoom conversation with The Wire, Mehta talked about DuVernay’s support to the film, the screen adaptation of Selvadurai’s novel, the theme of the other and the focus on family. Importantly, the filmmaker also responded to the controversy about not having enough Tamil actors in the cast and the problematic Tamil accents in the film. Excerpts from the interview:

Let us start with where Funny Boy is positioned at the moment. Ava DuVernay is on board, and the film is Canada’s pick for the 2021 Oscars. What does this mean for the film?

It’s nice if somebody you respect, respects your work and helps you open a window. She [Duvernay] saw the film, got back to us two days later and said, ‘We love it, we are moved by it, we would like to distribute it.’ To have a film about people of colour, about South Asia, [made] by a person of colour [and] to have it represented by a  person who is a woman of colour and someone I respect enormously, is so important. The window has opened right now for our stories – South Asian stories, stories of [persons of] colour. If we do not go through that window and have our stories told now, before we know it, the window will close. Hopefully not. But it’s a big battle. So, to have her [DuVernay’s] muscle behind it, to ensure that it gets a screening was important. I feel honoured.

Your Sri Lankan connect goes back to Water?

It does. We were shut down in Varanasi [in Uttar Pradesh]. There were many states in India that said, come and make it here. It felt like a compromise. I was upset and bewildered. We had given the script to the ministry [information and broadcasting]. We were shut down when we had the permissions.

With Funny Boy we had to give the script to the National Film Commission in Sri Lanka. It is based on a book that has been around for 24 years. So, it’s interesting that [for] a book that has been translated into Tamil and Sinhala and is taught in Colombo University, the right to make the film took so long. I have to give credit to Sri Lanka in a way. It took us one year to get the permissions, but they did give them to us.

Deepa Mehta with Shyam Selvadurai, author and co-writer. Photo: Maithili Venkataraman

How did you go about the word-to-screen adaptation? Selvadurai, the author, is a co-writer along with you. How did his involvement enrich the whole process?

It started with him actually. When the book first came out, I read it and was deeply moved by it – as an immigrant to Canada, being the ‘other’. The preconceptions that come with being a desi in a white country is something I had to deal with. For me Shyam’s book was also about the preconceptions about who we are, what is expected of us, our race, our culture, our sexuality. I immediately called his agent and asked if I could option the book and they said that it had already been taken. Sometimes books get optioned but don’t get made. Shyam was telling me the other day that it was never optioned by a Tamil, which is fascinating in itself.

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Two years ago, I got a script that said, ‘Funny Boy, written by Shyam Selvadurai’. It [came] through his agent. I think Shyam really got tired of waiting and he wanted to show that the book could be made into a film. So, he sat down and wrote a script for it.

It [the script] was 250 pages long. An average film is about 105 pages. Then we decided that we would work on it together.

What was important was the through line – what is the story about? The story is about the oppression of the other. I have been through it. I know what it’s like to be the other. For me, the story is about someone who is different – so, how does identity politics play into all of this, who gets persecuted, who gets rewarded, what is the reward?

Ultimately, for me, what was important was that this film gets told from a Tamil perspective on what happened during the civil war [in Sri Lanka]. Not many people know [about] it. It was a great tragedy. Not unlike what happened with Partition. Not unlike what happened with Palestine. [Take] Hotel Rwanda [based on the Rwandan genocide of 1994]. What happened with the Hutus and the Tutsis? We did not realise how badly they were affected till the film came out.

There are layers to Funny Boy. There is the obvious politics, the theme of the other. Then there is the ethnic conflict and also the class issue. In the middle of it all is a gay love story. Of all these elements, did it ever occur to you to choose one over the other?

It is the story of a family that belongs to a certain class which intrigued me. A film that I saw a long time ago and which continues to haunt me is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [a 1970 film by Vittorio de Sica about two rich Jewish siblings who are forced out of their privileged bubble to confront the growing fascism and anti-Semitism of the Mussolini era]. Everybody gets affected as a family, as people – whichever class they belong to – by a war, where your own people are fighting you and you are trying to find a voice in what you think is your own country.

I follow a family, the family dynamics, what happens when the other is within the family. It was not a complicated ‘I will choose this over that’ [approach]. It is not about one or the other – it is not [just] a gay love story about a Tamil and a Sinhala man; it’s not [just] about the civil war; it is about a family. We get to know these people. We get to know Amma, Appa, Ammachi (the grandmother) – the father involved in his business, the mother’s slow awakening to politics. How does a woman, who is supposed to be a “housewife”, become a feminist, a politically aware woman? That was important for me.

It takes me back to Fire, which was another exploration of homosexuality. But there it was gender focused. The family was there but the dynamics were so different.

I don’t know how to reply to that. Fire is a different film. It is a gay love story, but it is also much more than that. For me it was about what happens if we break social boundaries. It was more about women. Can women choose what they want to be in a patriarchal society? Funny Boy may be about coming full circle – it is a gay love story, but the times have changed.

Is there any hope for love – that is the basic question in Shyam’s book. [It is about] the importance of solidarity. Can Hindus and Muslims exist in peace?… Can the Syrian refugees ever get peace? Can Yemen stop happening? For me, this film is about that. It’s about people who are being persecuted, have been persecuted, continue to be persecuted for their beliefs. Why can’t we live in harmony? The film is my call for peace.

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You shot the film entirely in Sri Lanka? How was the casting done?

We finished shooting there in December 2019-January 2020. We were there for a year. The whole process has taken three years of my life.

One of the greatest challenges was casting. Not only do you want the right actors; you also want them [to be] of the right persuasion. And you want them to be able to act. We spent a year – Shyam and I. Shyam was very helpful, he is half Tamil and half Sinhala, has good connections there [Sri Lanka]. We scoured universities and colleges for [the] older Arjie. It would have been wonderful to get a Tamil Arjie. But what was also important for us was to get a gay young man. A gay Sri Lankan. For Shyam to come out when he did was huge. It is a criminal offence there still. That representation was extremely important to Shyam.

The reality is that the Tamil community, even to this day, is apprehensive. No Tamil we met was willing to act the part of Arjie. First of all, there are very few Tamil film actors. They are [mostly] in theatre. But everyone in Colombo was apprehensive about playing a gay role. We got Brandon [Ingram] who is not Tamil but who is out. The courage it takes to be out! We didn’t have an Alec Guinness with a brown face (Passage to India); we had a Sri Lankan. We got more than 50% Tamil actors; we couldn’t get 100%. That was not for lack of trying and I don’t regret it. Finally, it is about the story.

Brandon Ingram.

Did you think about sourcing your actors from the Tamil film industry in India?

Of course! We approached [R.] Madhavan. He said he did not want to play a father. Siddharth Suryanarayan I really wanted. Sid had broken his shoulder so he could not do it. The person I thought would be really good was the guy who played the king in Baahubali [Prabhas]. He didn’t answer any of my calls, so that was that.

There is this wonderful actor Sendhil Ramamurthy [American actor]. We had long conversations. [But] this is a small Canadian film, and we could not afford it. I also found two really fine Sri Lankan-Tamil actors in Toronto. One is a refugee and to get a visa and go to Sri Lanka to act would have jeopardised his [situation]. There is another [actor] I loved, Suthan, to whom I gave the role, in fact. His father was not well. Six months later, when we were given the permissions, I went back to him and he said he had just got married.

Did you communicate this to members of the Tamil community in Canada who have taken offence at the lack of a sufficient number of Tamil actors in the film?

Am I going to take out all the auditions and show them? That is so defensive and demeaning. You have to find out what’s important to you. Do you want your story to be told – the story of the genocide of the Tamils. Or is it more important to you that a Sri Lankan who is not a Tamil is playing a Tamil. People want to be offended these days. It’s very easy to be offended. But I did not set about offending anybody. It is the last thing I need in my life – been there, done that and it’s exhausting.

What about people in Sri Lanka? How have they responded?

I thought it was important that Sri Lankans be the first to see their film. We had four underground screenings where each of the four  actors, at the same time, in different homes, chose whom they wanted to show the film to – detractors of the book, my detractors, activists, journalists, LGBTQ representatives, about 30 people, Tamil and Sinhala, but mostly Tamil.

The Tamil reaction from Sri Lanka is diametrically different from the reaction in the Tamil diaspora. They put out on their Facebook posts, on Twitter, about how they were happy that their story was finally being told. Those are the people who live there, who lived through Black July [the anti-Tamil riots of 1983], whose children grew in the shadow of Black July, whose children know what it is to be a marginalised community. They are moved enough to write, thank god, someone is telling our story.

What about the Sinhala community?

There was a question and answer session after one of the screenings in Sri Lanka. One of the very well-respected Tamil journalists, Easwaran, who writes for The Daily Mail, saw the film with a group – Sinhala and Tamil – and he said something [like], ‘Deepa are you prepared that you will never be allowed into Sri Lanka again?’ He said it’s because the film makes the Sinhala question what they did, and they are not going to be happy because it’s a pro-Tamil film. I said I did think about it, but that’s the reality of the civil war. I am not making it up; it’s historically accurate. And it’s ironic that it is the Tamils who are after me.

Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy faced criticism for the accents and now people are questioning the Tamil accent in Funny Boy. I also read somewhere that there is some corrective dubbing happening.

I will reply to that, but then this is what happens – the film gets lost. You and I are not talking about the film anymore. You are talking about the controversy.

The reality is that we finished this film in the middle of COVID. We have actors from Sri Lanka, there are two actors from Mumbai and two actors from Canada. We actually booked a studio in Colombo to do what is called additional dialogue. When the editing is done, we have to clean up the dialogue. We go back to clean the dialogue because the ambient sound of locations is poor.

We were about to go back to Sri Lanka and do the re-recording, the dubbing. The lockdown happened. We ended up with actors being in their closets on cellphones doing temporary lines. We could put them in the film for the flow of the film and we were all hoping that one day, when there is no lockdown, [if] not in Sri Lanka, we can get them here [Toronto] to correct the lines. It happened a month ago when the studios opened. These were always temporary lines, but it makes a good story that I am running around, scampering around.

I don’t want to be dispirited by it; I am not. I don’t want to be amused by it, I am not. I think of myself as a serious filmmaker. I know how offensive it is to hear someone talk like Apu from The Simpsons. I am aware of that.

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).