The first thing that struck me about Deepa Mehta was her laugh, her deep hearty chuckle emanated joy and immediately reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s laugh. I instantly felt as though I were speaking with someone who reminded me of home. So quick was I able to create a bond with Mehta, even over the phone, that I ended our call by telling her that her laugh sounded exactly like my grandmother’s, to which she responded with another hearty laugh. At the time of our conversation, both Mehta and I had been away from family for months – her mother was based in Delhi and my own family in Bangkok. She ended the call with an incredibly sweet and sincere offer to “call anytime [I] miss Nani.”
This same sense of nostalgia is reflected in the cinematography of Mehta’s “Funny Boy,” an adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 Lamda Literary award-winning novel of the same name. The film was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array. Released back on December on Netflix, “Funny Boy” was selected as Canada’s official entry for the 2021 Academy Awards, but then rejected by AMPAS for having “too much English language” in the film – one of many arbitrary and ridiculous ways awards organizations seek to box many different films (see: “Minari” nominated as Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes, on the flip side).
The film chronicles the journey of a young boy called Arjie who is from an upper middle-class family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the awakening of his sexual identity during a time of rising political tensions between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority. The events of the film lead up to the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka that killed thousands of people.
In a film about love, pain, and identity, the beauty of Sri Lanka is depicted in the very small details, from the costume design to the scenery of the homes amidst the conflict in the country. Mehta takes care to linger on each character and each scene to show the layered complexity embedded into Arjie’s story.
As Arjie and his family learn to acknowledge his sexual identity in a country where homosexuality is a criminal act and he is discriminated against for his “funny” behavior, Arjie learns to embrace his identity and find a new sense of home within himself. Concurrently, mirroring his journey of self-identity, the characters in the film seek refuge in Canada, away from the home they grew up in — the film touches upon very relevant themes of inter-ethnic tensions and immigration.
Mehta’s previous films include the Trilogy of “Fire” (1996), “Earth” (1998), and “Water” (2005). “Water” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. When asked about how her family and friends reacted to her latest film, Mehta discussed how her daughter had actually described FUNNY BOY as the fourth element in the trilogy. “She said that this film is about space. The space that you occupy as human beings with our own sexuality and who we are. It tackles the questions of whether we can share that space physically and culturally, and what stops us.”
Not new to adapting books, Mehta co-wrote the script with Selvadurai. In fact, Shyam had written a 180-page script before approaching Mehta for the adaptation. Even though Mehta had filmed in Sri Lanka before for WATER and MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, Selvadurai, who is half Tamil and half Sinhalese, introduced Mehta to a community of actors, filmmakers, writers, film producers, and translators, amongst others. “You can’t just breeze into a country and demand for things, like for actors and creatives to work with you. Shyam was vital in the collaborative process. For Shyam, the book is Sri Lankan, not Tamil, not anything else. It is a bridge and plea for solidarity between the different cultures in Sri Lanka.”
It was important to both Shyam and Mehta that the actor who play Arjie be openly queer. The film has received quite a bit of pushback for the lack of Tamil actors in the film, to which Mehta stated that it was challenging finding actors who were out and who would be willing to be out on screen. “There is still a lot of oppression, fear, and suppressed sadness within the Tamil community. At the end of the day, ”
There were also challenges as Mehta had to wait for a year for the film to be accepted by the National Film Corporation in Sri Lanka to begin filming. The actor who played Arjie, Brandon Ingram, had so impressed Mehta during their first meeting in terms of how articulate and thoughtful he was about the film and story. “He is a very quiet and wise soul. He is so sensitive and yet doesn’t take himself seriously. It’s a perfect combination and great discipline to have as an actor. He believes that unless you take risks, you won’t grow.”
In a time when the world seems to be fraught with divisiveness, Mehta hopes that the film and its story will resonate with audiences all over the world. “This Arjie’s coming-of-age story and the story of the oppression of minorities, but a friend of mine told me that it can be also be about what is happening everywhere else – in Palestine, Turkey, Inda, Rwanda, Syria — wherever there is hatred and divisiveness, wherever there is a nationalist populist government. Shyam’s book, and this film, hopefully reflects that in times of pain, love can also happen. Love for each other and love for yourself.”