Deepa Mehta took Canada to the Oscars in 2006 with Water and she could do it again with Funny Boy. The daring Indian-Canadian director delivers one of her best and most beautiful films yet with this adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s acclaimed 1994 novel. Funny Boy, which is Canada’s official selection in the Oscar race for best international feature film, is the story of Arjie, a young Tamil man coming of age and coming out of the closet in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the nation’s civil war, which erupted in the violent Black July siege in which the Sinhalese majority targeted the Tamil minority. Never one to shy away from controversy, Mehta’s film explores how oppression infiltrates marginalized classes as Arjie’s Tamil family struggles to embrace him, failing to recognize how they enforce the same prejudices of which they are targets.
Key to Arjie’s growth is his relationship with his aunt, Radha, played by Canada’s Agam Darshi. Their story lets the young Arjie explore means of self-expression outside of the usual gender stereotypes. Radha Aunty paints his toenails (a “joyous secret” they share) and invites him to be part of her theatre group. It’s in this artistic space that Arjie sees how love knows no boundaries. Radha begins a forbidden relationship with a Sinhalese actor in the show and sees firsthand how violent clashes between cultures can transform one’s desire. When an elder Arjie, played by Brandon Ingram (no, not that Brandon Ingram), begins a sweet, hesitant relationship with Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), a Sinhalese boy at school, Radha Aunty’s courage and lost love are his inspiration to take the leap.
As the story of the forbidden relationships unfolds parallel to the escalating violence against the Tamil community, Funny Boy tells one story among many within the Tamil diaspora. Funny Boy is all about the complexity of navigating space in a community where one might be unwanted—or where one’s means of expressing love remain a criminal act. Mehta’s film reimagines these spaces anew and invites a tale of tolerance, empathy, and love. The film itself is an act of courage with Mehta shooting a tale of queer love in a country where the act itself remains illegal and when the cultural climate of 2020 seems just as polarised as that of decades past.
Complex Canada spoke with Deepa Mehta and Agam Darshi by phone and by video, respectively, ahead of Funny Boy’s premiere on CBC Gem today. Check out our virtual chat with Darshi above, and our interview with Mehta about the obstacles she faced getting the film made below.
You previously tackled a significant story about queer love in Fire. How do you think attitudes towards queer relationships have changed since 1998?
The book was written 24 years ago, but I think that people are far more open to the idea of queer love. I think that Moonlight really helped open up that facet. There's much more acceptance from people who did not accept it earlier. But don’t forget that in 11 countries, homosexuality is punishable by death. That's really scary. Homosexuality, or queer love, is a criminal offense in Sri Lanka. Things have changed, but not as much as they should.
With the subject matter being controversial in Sri Lanka, how did you prepare for production after the shutdowns and violence that you encountered while shooting Midnight’s Children and Water?
Maybe you can say I’m thick skinned. But Shyam Selvadurai’s wonderful book Funny Boy has been translated into Sinhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka and is actually taught in universities. It's interesting, on one hand, that the book is appreciated and lauded enough to be taught in university and to be a beloved book of Sri Lanka and yet homosexuality or queer love itself is still illegal. It took us a year to get permission to shoot the film in Sri Lanka. It was it wasn't easy. We have a local producer who helped us get permission and the Canadian High Commissioner was really helpful as well.
In order to make a film in Sri Lanka or in India, you have to give your script to the government. We gave the script, which is written by Shyam and myself, to the government agency that gives permission and they said “no.” It was a double reason. One reason was the homosexuality and the other was that they were not very happy with the way the civil war was depicted. The film, for me, is about the oppression of marginalized communities, whether these communities are marginalized because of their sexuality or because of race and culture. Tamils got the short end of the stick and had a difficult time during the civil war. It took us about a year to get permission when we submitted the second time. When we did get permission, somebody from the government office was with us throughout the shoot and made sure that we did not film anything that we were not supposed to film.
"Even at my age, I constantly have to navigate the preconceptions that are attached to me being an Indo-Canadian. That’s what Arjie is doing all the time."
What inspired the varied use of language in the film? Funny Boy is a mix of English, Tamil, and Sinhalese. For Water, you had to shoot versions of the film in both Hindi and English to secure financing, so was the language for Funny Boy a logistical or creative choice?
Yes, that's true. It was funding then for Water. That was 15 years ago and you could not get funding if the film was not shot in either an Indigenous language, English, or French, which are the rules of Telefilm Canada. They’ve changed, thank God—they're far more open now. If I'm a Canadian citizen and I'm the director, and the writer is a Canadian citizen, then why can't the film be in the language that it's supposed to be in? The book is in English, but I felt it would be more authentic if people didn’t speak English all the time. You don't go to a butcher in Sri Lanka and speak in English.
It is also about a privileged family who switches from English to Tamil in the film. It’s ironic because there's a sentence in the film where Amma [Nimmi Harasgama] says that she is in favor of the Tamil Tigers. Jegan [Shivantha Wijesinha] says she can do whatever she wants because wealth protects her. Of course, wealth doesn't protect anybody when it comes to pogroms. We know what happened with people from the Holocaust and in Palestine. Language had nothing to do with funding, and was a creative choice. If you get into that kind of stuff, then you might as well not make films. You could never be authentic.
With the mixed use of language and the film’s use of space, Funny Boy conveys an idea of people who are straddling different experiences and different worlds. Arjie is often in hallways looking into different rooms and there's a scene where he leaves the room to dance in the hallway, and when his father sees him, he stops. How do you relate to the experience of navigating different worlds?
As you can see Pat, I'm brown. It is about navigating space. This is something that I grew up with when I came to Canada as an immigrant years ago. Even to this day, you're still navigating space. You're trying to find where you belong. Out of many countries in the world, I’m grateful that I came to Canada because things are in quite rough shape wherever there's a populous nationalist government. There is complete derision and divisiveness. To navigate space that is not yours is something that I've always done. I'm not talking about racism, but there is systemic prejudice. I would point to the film again. At the end, when they arrive in Canada, the mother says, “He can do whatever he wants to do now, because in this new land, he's a free slave.” What does that mean? You're a slave to people's preconceptions of who you are because you are either Black or brown or a different colour. Even at my age, I constantly have to navigate the preconceptions that are attached to me being an Indo-Canadian. That’s what Arjie is doing all the time.
How did it feel to see Kamala Harris elected vice president?
I'm thrilled. I like her as a woman. I like the fact that she's half-Indian and half-Black. But it’s not just that: she's really bright and strong. I think she put up with more than anyone else did. She deserves to be where she is and is breaking the glass ceiling for many people of your generation. I'm very happy. Trump can’t leave soon enough.
Brandon Ingram and Rehan Mudannayake are so effective as Arjie and Shehan, so I was surprised to learn that it was the first time that either of them had been the lead in a film, or really acted in film. How did you come to cast them?
It’s difficult to make a break in the white film world where there are very few roles. Southeast Asians are usually cast as Uber drivers or doctors. For Shyam, it was important that Arjie actually be a guy who had come out. That's extremely important. For me, representation began and ended with Shyam’s wishes. It took some finding for Arjie. We had a year to cast the film because it took a year to get permissions [with the script]. We looked for many Arjies here. We looked for Tamil Arjies. We looked for non-queer Arjies. Finally, we found Brandon in Colombo. Brandon is a Burgher [an ethnic group of mixed Sri Lankan and European descent] and is an activist. He hadn't done film, but he'd done theater. I’ve known Rehan since he was a young boy. I've known his parents for a long time. He studied directing in London, England and I think he's going to get a new career as an actor because he's totally enigmatic and natural. Their chemistry was excellent.
"I hope Canada keeps providing that safety to people who might not agree with many things that happen here."
How much had you completed before COVID lockdowns happened and how did post-production work?
We were lucky. We finished shooting before the pandemic hit, and we did the editing in Madrid, Spain. We went there because I think one of the finest editors in the world is there, Teresa Font. She had done a film that I loved, Pain and Glory. The last day of the final edit was the date that we got the last flight back to Toronto before the lockdown. Then, of course, the horror of post started because everything had to be done by Zoom. It was very difficult. We had actors and studios booked for ADR [automated dialogue replacement] because it’s very tough to do location sound when the crow's constantly crowing. We had studios booked in Colombo and in Mumbai for the actors so we could get the Tamil right. Some of the actors don't speak Tamil and we couldn't do it because we couldn't go [to Colombo] because of the pandemic. Doing the music was a bit easier because we had already met Howard Shore and had been in conversation, but to be physically present to do ADR was tough. We've been doing it for the last month, so they just finished it.
How did the first run with Water on the Oscar campaign trail prepare you for this time?
We didn't do anything! We put this film forward and Ava [DuVernay] was very keen that we give it a shot with the Canadians. Unless it's officially a selection by Canada, we can't go any further. We submitted it to the festival office for Telefilm, and they told us to inform them if any good things happened so they could tell the jury members. The good thing that happened was that the contract with Ava [and her U.S. distribution company ARRAY] was signed. It’s a perfect fit for us.
When Midnight’s Children premiered at TIFF, you introduced the film and said that you were happy to be premiering it in Toronto because making a film led you to be able to call Canada home. How has Funny Boy shaped your relationship to Canada?
That comment was about what happened with me with Water. Water was violently shut down by Hindus in a very uber-nationalist uprising in India. I was under constant attack and I had to have security all around. It made no sense to me because the script had been approved by the government, which was the same government that was saying that there were no Hindu widows and they were not treated the way they were depicted in the film. It was an ugly time of intolerance. Now with Funny Boy, I think that time has not changed much in the world. We’ve seen what's happening in the United States. There's incredible intolerance with Palestine, with Turkey.
But with Water, what happened was that I was sitting on the plane, coming back from India after being exposed to a world of violence over a film that had not even been made. Nobody had seen the film—it hadn't even been shot! I sat in the plane and I thought, “My God, I'm going back to Canada.” And for the first time, I felt I was coming home. Because what is “home”? For me, it's security and safety. I've never felt that Canada was not home. Yes, India is the home that I grew up in, but in that moment where I said, “I'm coming home,” it meant I was going to safety. I hope Canada keeps providing that safety to people who might not agree with many things that happen here. The point is that we can and should have a dialogue, but it should not be violent. That's what democracy is for.
Article: Patrick Mullen
Video: Alex Narvaez