By Renu Mehta
Toronto – Deepa Mehta’s new film Funny Boy, selected as Canada’s entry for the Oscars, has now achieved another triumph. Based on a book by Shyam Selvadurai, the film has now been chosen as the opening film of EnGendered, a major Human Rights festival in New Delhi on December 10.
The film, about Love and War, Conflict and Sexuality, is set amidst a background of Tamil oppression and resistance and narrates the story of Arjie (played by Arush Nand in childhood and Brandon Ingram as a teenager), a boy from an upper class Tamil family in Colombo who loves dressing up as a girl and cannot understand why he is called Funny. Growing up in Sri Lanka in the 70s and 80s, Arjie explores his sexuality in the film and comes of age at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Sri Lanka.
Amidst a backdrop of intolerance for his sexuality, the narration explores the drifting relations between the Sinhalese majority community and the Tamil minorities, clearly weaving a picture of the genocide committed against the Tamils and depicting the repression of minorities amidst a background of turbulence and ethnic tension. “From the very beginning, Deepa understood the book and loved it. I always had trust she would do it correctly,” says Selvadurai.
It took the production house a year to cast for the film in several cities including London, Toronto and Colombo. The stellar cast includes several well-known names like Seema Biswas and Ali Kazmi as well as Agam Darshi, Brandon Ingram and Tracy Holsinger. 50 per cent of the principal cast comprises Sri Lankan/Tamil origin actors including Nimmi Harasgama as Amma, a Tamil Sinhalese British Sri Lanka award winning actor and writer; Shivantha Wijesinha as Jegan, award winning actor and singer/songwriter from Sri Lanka and Rehan Mudannayake as Shehan.
“This is an international film and Deepa is an Indo-Canadian director,” says Damith Chandimal, LGBTQ+ and Human Rights Activist who attended a private underground screening of Funny Boy in Colombo. “Deepa’s cinematic language is very strong. It has the potential to go beyond language. In any case, it will be a film that will create a big discussion about Sri Lanka in the future. Anyway the best movie I’ve ever seen. A good door to start a conversation.”
“I watched Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai’s iconic Sri Lankan coming-of-age novel, filmed by the equally iconic Deepa Mehta,” says Ashok Ferrey, eminent Sri Lankan writer and novelist. “A film of pathos and charm, poetic and sad, I loved it! The questions put to the director afterwards (by Skype) were interesting in themselves, often revealing more about the questioner than the person questioned. Why did you use non-Tamil actors in Tamil roles? someone asked. ‘Because I chose actors for their ability, not race’, she answered. It would be so limiting if I were to be bound by race. The perfect answer.”
“Funny Boy may not be a flawless film, but it’s certainly an important one,” Shehan Karunatilaka, author and previous feature writer for The Guardian, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and the Economic Times. “It’s almost four decades since the pogroms of 1983, and this is the first time I’ve seen it depicted on screen. This is sad, but unsurprising. We haven’t had many apologies or memorials for 1983, and don’t seem likely to. And we don’t often do cinema from the point of view of the marginalised. Funny Boy has the power to break silences, and start conversations about justice, race, class, sexuality and our history’s many mistakes. It’s a picture that all Sri Lankans should see, and that any audience with a heart would enjoy. I hope it encourages more film-makers to turn their cameras on our Sri Lankan past.”
“For me, Funny Boy is a quintessentially Canadian story, and could have only been written by a Sri Lankan who had emigrated to Canada,” says Mehta in her press notes, whose work challenges traditions and stereotypes and is always daring, fearless and provocative. “The objectivity that Canada provides, through which we can look at our respective homelands is, I think this country’s greatest gift. It’s what I hope will give us a global understanding of the nature of the ‘Other’.”
The film airs on CBC TV and CBC Gem on December 4, 2020.