In 'Funny Boy,' A Young Sri Lankan Gay Man Comes Of Age As Ethnic Tensions Explode
In the opening pages of the 1994 Canadian novel Funny Boy, a young Sri Lankan boy named Arjie refuses to play cricket with the boys as his father insists. He'd rather bedazzle in bridal reds and join the girls' make-believe wedding.
Novelist Shyam Selvadurai's gay coming of age novel became a critical and commercial sensation in Canada when it was first published, enduring as a pioneering story of queerness, politics, and South Asian history. As the new film adaptation opens with the sound of the ocean — establishing the lush seafront tropical landscape of Sri Lanka — a group of girls run across the screen, with Arjie's veil billowing in the wind, gender non-conforming and proudly leading the way.
Funny Boy is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who has previously explored what it means to be an outsider in South Asian culture in a trilogy of acclaimed and controversial historical dramas: Fire, Earth and Water. Like author Shyam Selvadurai, Mehta is also an immigrant to Canada and she says it was Selvadurai's interwoven narrative of being both a migrant and a queer outsider in his own culture that made it such a powerfully layered story of selfhood.
"It felt like a double whammy," she says. "Not only was it about what it's like to leave your homeland but it combines the feeling of looking different with actually being different all your life, which was queer. It was something I'd never read before."
Funny Boy tells Arjie's coming of age story as a privileged Tamil young man against the backdrop of the late 1970s and 1980s, as ethnic tensions between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority explode into full blown conflict. As Arjie falls in love with a queer Sinhalese classmate, he's forced to confront the hardening borders and violence of ethnic difference. The devastating Sri Lankan civil war lasted for more than two decades and displaced generations, including author Shyam Selvadurai's own blended Tamil-Sinhalese family who went to Toronto as refugees in 1983. Selvadurai says although he found his creative community in Canada among fellow queer immigrant writers, he never came across published novels that reflected their experience.
"Our story needed to be told and I thought there was nothing for me, so I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to give a young Sri Lankan or South Asian queer writer a book where they could see themselves'...so that was the start of the novel," Selvadurai says.
Mehta says she first read Funny Boy 24 years ago around the same time she released her own breakthrough queer drama Fire. That film told the story of two unhappily married Delhi housewives who defy both tradition and laws in the act of love. The film's lesbian relationship was a groundbreaking subject for mainstream South Asian cinema and the film's release ignited violent backlash from conservative groups.
As cinemas burned in India amid protests and debates over the film's themes, Mehta became known as a critical and brave feminist voice in world cinema, says queer cinema scholar B. Ruby Rich. "The impact of that film was such that it entered the curriculum for feminist classes, film classes, globalization classes in all kinds of places around the world," she says.
Mehta says her intention wasn't to make a "lesbian story" but to explore the boundaries of women's lives and freedom in her culture. "It is what is expected of women or what is expected of men, what is expected of us as human beings," she says. "Why can't we be what we want to be...and that's what intrigues me." Selvadurai says because of Mehta's queer politics and filmmaking skills he knew she could do justice to his own Funny Boy. "I really knew she was the person for it. I mean I gave them the rights to the movie for a dollar," he says.
Despite the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka and the trauma of the civil war remains a deeply sensitive subject, Mehta and her international cast were able to shoot Funny Boy entirely on location — amid the homes and lush coastline of the tropical island nation. Although official filming permissions were rescinded and returned over a tumultuous production year in 2019, Mehta describes the entire process as a miraculous triumph, especially given filming was completed before the coronavirus pandemic closed international borders.
But ever since the first trailer for Funny Boy appeared online, some in the Tamil diaspora have attacked Mehta for casting non-Tamil and non-Sri Lankan actors in major roles and for Tamil dialogue delivered with audibly foreign accents. Although she has had some of the dialogue re-recorded by native Tamil speakers in weeks leading up to the release, the controversy around casting and representation has continued online and the attacks against Mehta have grown more personal and pointed. Selvadurai says while he thinks it's okay not to like the film and disagree with the casting choices, he's found the online outrage against the film both "violent and disrespectful."
Mehta, who has had film sets in addition to cinemas attacked in the past, says she never sets out to court controversy and wonders whether she's just a "sucker for punishment." Mehta says that for her, the collaboration with Selvadurai was born of a desire to better understand the roots of Sri Lanka's sectarian conflict and the possibility of reconciliation through love across lines.
"Why do I make the films I make? I do make them because I'm curious. I'm curious about things I really want to know more about. Why do we hang on to hatred? We have to heal. The world just can't carry on the way it is right now," she says. As for the debate around her filmmaking choices, she says while she may not have made a perfect film, "I do feel that a conversation is essential to have. Let them see the film, let the dialogue and the healing begin, if they wish it."
Funny Boy is being distributed by filmmaker Ava DuVernay's ARRAY films, which focuses on bringing movies from underrepresented artists to wider audiences. As the film adaptation arrives on Netflix this month, Funny Boy has already been selected to represent Canada as the country's official Oscar entry. Selvadurai says writing — and sharing — Arjie's story helped him heal from the wounds he carried to Canada as a refugee, and as a young gay man, and he hopes the film can do the same for others.
"The beginning of talking about trauma is telling the story, and I really hope that the film opens up the story for our community," he says.