The opening scene of Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Funny Boy mirrors the vision of the exotic island paradise that Sri Lanka occupies in the Western imagination: joyous children jaunting along its beaches while chanting a Tamil song, a benevolent aunty handing them flowers and encouraging words from the passing window of a train. But as the film progresses, this idyllic fantasy is disrupted as Sri Lanka’s bloody history is told through the eyes of Arjie Chelvaratnam (played by Arush Nand as a child and later by Brandon Ingram as a teenager), the son of a well-to-do Tamil hotelier, as he grapples with his sexuality and ethnic identity.
Although he is subjected to homophobic slurs and the questioning looks of his family, his world of fantasy and naivete is preserved by his cosmopolitan aunt Radha (Agam Darshi), who nurtures his interests within the parameters of his conservative family. Arjie’s understanding of his identity is further impressed on him as he observes his family prohibit Radha from dating Anil (Ruvin De Silva), her Sinhalese lover, as tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population and the Tamil community, its largest minority, are exacerbated. In his teenage years, these two aspects of Arjie’s identity come to a head, as he falls in love with a Sinhalese classmate amidst increasing anti-Tamil oppression leading up to the 1983 Black July pogrom. The week-long riots, in which Sinhalese mobs attacked thousands of Tamil households and businesses throughout the country, marked the beginning of a civil war which ended in 2009.
The tenderness of the relationship between Arjie and his boyfriend, Shehan (Rehan Muddayanake), is palpable, as they cloister themselves in the urgency of their newfound feelings and their mutual admiration of literature and Eighties pop music. Despite their attempts to build a sanctuary away from Sri Lanka’s conservative society, Arjie and Shehan’s relationship is ultimately doomed by the government and society’s subjugation of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community.
Funny Boy’s exploration of the growing climate of fear amidst the Tamil community through the fracturing of the Chelvaratnam family’s social life is often arresting and harrowing. Galvanised by their oppression in the years preceding the Civil War, Sri Lankan Tamils formed insurgent groups with the aim of Tamil liberation and self-determination, of which the LTTE was the largest and most significant. As Tamil nationalist sentiment rises, Arjie’s mother, Nalini, (Nimmi Harasgama) is distanced from her far less radical husband (Ali Kazmi), unable to ignore her sympathies for groups such as the LTTE in light of her growing consciousness. On a trip to the market, Arjie’s grandmother (Seema Biswas) chastises her Tamil butcher for speaking Sinhalese, who tells her that his desire to assimilate is not one born of complacency, but of practicality, reminding her that he is “poor and stuck here,” the grisly scene of strewn entrails and the cries of panicked chickens steeping the scene in an almost pungent friction. The looming presence of state-sanctioned oppression even pervades Arjie and Shehan’s blossoming romance. When Arjie tells Shehan that he is too scared to commit to a relationship with him, Shehan wields his ethnicity as a threat, remarking that “Fucking Tamils are all the same,” before attacking him in their school playground. Yet, soon after, Arjie falls into bed with Shehan, his callous words seemingly forgotten. Their union is bookended by violence, with Arjie returning home to witness an armed mob shouting “Kill all Tamils!” Arjie is forced to splinter his identity, perpetually caught in the process of negotiating suppression with joy. However, the film’s failure to delve into the complexities of the Civil War and to meaningfully synthesise its two central conflicts means that by the end, the film feels unmoored and disjointed.
The film is further ruptured by the awkward and often unintelligible inclusion of Tamil dialogue, in contrast to the English-language novel, a result of the fact that none of the film’s main cast, save for Nimmi Harasgama, are of Tamil descent. The film has elicited outrage from the Tamil diaspora, for whom it did not go amiss that submissions criteria for the International Feature category at the Oscars mandate that more than half of the film’s dialogue must be in a language other than English.
It’s also impossible to ignore Mehta’s defensiveness in response to outcry over her casting decisions. In a roundtable with NOW magazine, she makes it clear that in adapting Funny Boy alongside author Shyam Selvadurai, she sought authenticity in the performances, rather than the ethnicities, of her cast. However, at points, she cruelly twists the knife, for example, by condescendingly questioning why no Tamil directors adapted the film themselves in an astonishing disregard for the conditions she depicts in her own film. While Mehta has previously made use of pan-South Asian casting throughout her career to great success, it’s not difficult to understand why the use of the Tamil language as potential Oscar bait while simultaneously excluding Tamil people from a story about their genocide and displacement rankles.
Representation of South Asians in media has long progressed past being relegated to piteous characters who are coded as generically brown, but there is still a need for specificity and diversity in who gets to tell a story in front of and behind the cameras. Ultimately, Mehta’s apparent disdain for what she calls “tokenism” dulls Funny Boy, hindering its ability to reach the community who perhaps needed it the most.
Funny Boy is available to stream now on Netflix
by Madhu Manivannan