Funny Boy director Deepa Mehta and author Shyam Selvadurai join NOW's roundtable to confront issues of casting and Tamil erasure in their film
The Tamil community holds Funny Boy dear. The 1994 novel is a coming-of-age story about a young boy named Arjie, who, despite coming from a wealthy Colombo family, is doubly oppressed in Sri Lanka for being queer and Tamil.
Written by Toronto-based Shyam Selvadurai, who is a half-Tamil and half-Sinhalese gay man, Funny Boy is the rare fiction that spoke truths about the queer Tamil experience, but also connected to wider refugee and immigrant experiences.
For a Tamil diaspora escaping an ethnic war in Sri Lanka and feeling alienated in our new homes, Selvadurai’s debut novel was our only representation in the broader culture. That has inspired a certain protective instinct when it comes to the soon-to-be-released movie adaptation.
Director Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, which is currently schedule to open in select theatres across Canada on Friday before landing on CBC and CBC Gem on December 4, is a remarkably sensitive and balanced handling of Selvadurai’s novel.
The film covers the social and political tensions that built up to 1983’s Black July, an anti-Tamil pogrom that killed hundreds to thousands and incited the war that would claim hundreds of thousands more.
But despite a delicate hand in drawing out why hundreds of thousands of Tamils ended up as refugees in Canada, there has been growing pushback against the movie.
The main cast (Brandon Ingram, Nimmi Harasgama, Ali Kazmi, Agam Darshi, Seema Biswas, Shivantha Wijesinha) playing Tamil characters are mostly Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s majority population) and North Indian. In the version of the film I saw in late-summer, several cast members butcher the Tamil language.
Mehta and Selvadurai agreed to discuss the issue in a roundtable interview that you can watch in the video below. They brought along Cheran Rudhramoorthy, a poet and associate professor at the University of Windsor, who translated sections of the Funny Boy script into Tamil.
Mehta also invited New York-based professor Nimmi Gowrinathan, the founder and director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative at Columbia University. I brought along Nedra Rodrigo, an academic and arts programmer at York University who is working on her PhD on refugee narratives.
The sometimes-heated conversation moved back and forth between discussions: the political weight that language holds when telling the story of a conflict that was largely based on language; the relevance the film has for social movements that are becoming increasingly siloed; Mehta and Selvadurai’s explanations regarding casting.
“I really tried,” Mehta says, adding that they had a hard time finding Tamil actors willing to play these parts in Sri Lanka during a year-long casting process.
“You also have to understand, Tamils are still a group that is being persecuted,” says Mehta, referring to the criminalization of homosexuality in Sri Lanka. “It isn’t that easy for them to come out and say, ‘I want to be a part of a gay film.'”
Mehta says she exhausted her best efforts to cast within the Tamil-Canadian community after a couple of actors failed to pan out.
Following our roundtable, which took place on November 4, Mehta’s team re-recorded some of the Tamil dialogue in sessions directed by Tamil-Canadian Lenin M. Sivam. They dubbed over Seema Biswas with the voice of Tamil filmmaker Sumathy Balaram, and coached Pakistani-Canadian actor Ali Kazmi at enunciating Tamil.
But the online backlash against the Funny Boy movie doesn’t end with representation and language.
Berlin-based writer Sinthujan Varatharajah and his followers have called for a boycott of Funny Boy over a reported association between Mehta and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The former president of Sri Lanka (and current prime minister) was allegedly involved with the 2009 massacre of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians in the final stages of the 26-year-old war.
The association between Toronto-based Mehta and Rajapaksa was reported in Bloomberg and Playback Magazine. According to those stories, Mehta had tea with Rajapaksa in the lead-up to production on her 2012 film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, which she shot in Sri Lanka in 2010. At the time, the Iranian embassy in Sri Lanka influenced a production shutdown of Midnight’s Children because Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, made him an enemy of the state.
Bloomberg reports Mehta waited for Rajapaksa to return from campaigning in the countryside, upon which he tore up a letter of protest from Iran and allowed Mehta to resume filming. The Bloomberg story quotes Mehta as saying Rajapaksa “wasn’t about to get bullied.”
In our roundtable, Mehta calls that version of events “bullshit… I’ve never met Rajapaksa in my life.”
In a recent interview with The Globe And Mail, Mehta addresses the
NOW spoke to Damita Nikapota, a production consultant on Midnight’s Children who said lawyers from the production sued Sri Lanka’s National Film Corporation for reneging on its original permissions. Nikapota tells NOW that as soon as the legal documents were filed in court, the agency backed off and Midnight’s Children was allowed to resume production.
Such an explanation may not appease those calling for a boycott.
Funny Boy itself is nuanced enough to know that even Tamils fighting on the same side don’t always agree.
For some, Mehta’s willingness to work with the Sinhala officials
Still, there are many in the Tamil community who are eager to see Funny Boy on screen, even if they have a problem with who gets to tell it.
Watch the roundtable discussion in the video below. Or read excerpts from the conversation here, which has been edited for clarity.
NOW: There are so many beautiful elements in this film that I was taken aback by. But the big barrier to me was the language. I could tell these are not Tamil actors. I didn’t initially even recognize that they were speaking Tamil. That really did pull me out of the film. What was the thought process in casting these main roles?
Deepa Mehta: Fifty per cent of the actors are Tamil. And 50 per cent of them are from Sri Lanka. One of the main actors, Nimmi Harasgama, is half-Tamil and half-Sinhala. Representation is such a touchy subject now. And it’s an important one. Since I have come to this country, I’ve seen it grow.
I got into such flak because I did a film called Water. It’s a story about Hindu widows. And I cast a young girl in the lead because I thought she was terrific. She’s actually a Sinhalese little girl. I got a lot of flak from the Hindus for casting a Sinhala. They said her Hindi was really bad.
You can get into it forever. It is about how do you remain true to your characters. That was the thought process. To have the right actors play them. To have as many Tamils as possible.
But you also have to understand, Tamils are still a group that is being persecuted. It isn’t that easy for them to come out and say, “I want to be a part of a gay film.” They are scared. There were some actors who were fabulous. There’s a Tamil director called Lenin Sivam. I’d seen all his films. And he had a wonderful actor who was in [the film] 1999, Suthan Mahalingam. I really wanted him to play Jegan [a supporting character affiliated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam].
His father got sick. Then the film got postponed. Then I approached him again. And then he got married. So it was things like this. People couldn’t get visas because they were refugees. So we really did look hard. But it got to a point where I said I can’t make a compromise with the characters.
As long as I wasn’t getting a white actor… I felt we were all Southeast Asian.
NOW: I get the challenge of finding a very specific Tamil actor who is queer to play that kind of a role. And of all the actors, Nimmi [Harasgama] was closest to nailing the Tamil language. As you said, she’s half-Tamil. But then you have the father, the LTTE fighter and the grandmother [characters]. It’s hard for a lot of us to believe that it was hard to cast Tamil actors [for those roles] between Canada and Sri Lanka. Because in Canada we have what, 200,000 [Tamils] in Toronto?
DM: I really did try. Some of them were not available. Others were not the right fit. So am I going to get an actor who’s not the right fit? Why isn’t anybody saying how wonderful it is that we got a gay guy to play a gay character? How important was it for you, Shyam?
Shyam Selvadurai: I find it interesting when you say it’s so easy to find Tamil actors in Sri Lanka.
NOW: I’m saying between Toronto and Sri Lanka.
SS: You have to understand there’s been a mass exodus to the diaspora. When I was growing up in Sri Lanka before 1983, there were a lot of Colombo Tamil actors actually in the amateur theatre, but they just dispersed like we did. It’s really difficult to find them. And I did look. I contacted all the amateur theatre groups. I contacted the universities that had departments, friends in those departments. They don’t exist. It’s really difficult to say that.
I also really genuinely wanted people with the correct Colombo accent. And while the film seems to have popped you out of it, for me, if I didn’t have that accent, it would have popped me out of it too; plus all the people in Colombo who would have seen the film and whose opinions are important to me. The book is a reflection of that tiny world of Sri Lanka.
I truly am delighted to have Brandon [Ingram] because I know just how difficult it is to be queer and South Asian. I meet a lot of young people in gay queer organizations who are still not out to their families and communities. I think that it’s quite a marvel to have somebody who’s an out, proud, Sri Lankan actor playing this lead. That’s really important to me.
Nedra Rodrigo: I’ve seen quite a few Eelam Tamil films. I don’t know what this shortage of Tamil actors is because I just know so many. If it’s a question of whether you want Tamil that’s spoken with a Sinhala accent – or whether you want Colombo Tamil that’s spoken with a Jaffna Tamil accent or an Indian Tamil accent – these are things that that we could go on about.
But there is something a little problematic about having Sinhala people portraying Tamil. Having a hegemonic culture portray an oppressed, conquered or colonized group is not generally understood as an empathic gesture. Whether they’re wearing fringes and feathers or blackface.
What is going on in that process when a Sinhala actor takes on the skin of a Tamil person? Is that empathy? Is that a narcissistic empathy? Do they feel entitled to take on that role? Do they see it as a sign of their own magnanimity? There’s so many questions that come up for me.
I’m a Colombo Tamil as well, Shyam. It’s not that I come into it with some insistence on Eelam Tamil purity or anything like that. But I wasn’t hearing Colombo Tamil. I was hearing Tamil that made it really uncomfortable for me while I was watching the film.
Who’s watching this film? How do they see themselves reflected in it? That tight little Colombo crowd that you’re focused on, is that your audience? Are you surprised if this movie goes into diaspora and people react to it differently?
Nimmi Gowrinathan: On the language question, I’m not a native speaker. It would be difficult for me to comment on that. I see very clearly what the critique is there. I think that the question of audience that Nedra raises is important.
I’m looking at it in terms of the political conversations this can start and the ones that we can have inside the community. For me, it was a film about the anomalies of the nationalist project. That’s interesting to me, even if you don’t agree with the way it’s put forward.
I don’t think there’s enough out there that we can build on to explore the anomalies of the nationalist project, [to move away] from a kind of purist nationalism to an expansive, inclusive nationalist conversation. That includes the political consciousness of Nimmi’s character, as it evolves slowly as she separates from her husband. And [that includes] the way in which the queer identity moves back and forth between the threat from being Tamil to the threat from being queer; and keeps moving back and forth in these spaces.
Nimmi Harasgama and Ali Kazmi in Funny Boy
SS: The main thing about the film is its politics. It’s what it portrays about the civil war, about queerness and the coming together of these marginal spaces. I hope that when people are talking about the Tamil and Tamil actors, that they also acknowledge what the film’s politics are.
DM: I’ve been making films for the last 20 years. I did a film called Earth and Hindus played Muslims. And Muslims played Hindus. I’ve never heard this kind of a thing. “How dare?!” “What does it mean for a Muslim to play a Hindu?”
NG: This is not a society that is Hindu vs. Muslim. It’s fractured along the lines of language. So, of course, this becomes a particularly volatile question.
But given that the film is completed, Nedra and Radheyan, what would you like to see from the filmmaker and from the writer that would address this in some way? The film is done. From inside the Tamil community, at this point with a finished film, what can they do to make clear either the effort that’s gone in or acknowledge the limitations that were there?
NOW: We do need to address and correct some of these explanations. Shyam says he really wanted to represent the politics. The Tamil factor does affect the politics.
The movie itself brilliantly acknowledges that one of the instigating factors in the war was the lack of opportunity for Tamil people in employment. And then Tamil people did not get the opportunity to be cast in these prominent roles.
There’s a political dimension to the language factor, which does fly in the face of this talk of representation, of what’s being represented, and flies in the face of the very messages of the film.
When we talk about representation, [there’s this notion that] this side can represent this side. There is a flattening of identities that is happening here that I don’t think is real representation. And one line in the movie actually kind of speaks to the whole flattening of experiences. The very last line of the movie [after the characters arrive in Canada] is, “We are all free slaves in this country.” It felt to me like, we’re flattening the experience of all people of colour, equating the Tamil experience to Black experiences.
NR: There’s the political aspect to language. The way language proficiency is used as a surveillance tool. I would want some acknowledgement of that.
When I was a kid during and shortly after the riots, the word “balthiya,” the Sinhala word for “bucket,” was used as a way of testing whether you were Sinhala or not. “Come on, say balthiya.” They were so sure you would say it wrong.
It became a tool for kids to bully us, for young men to bully young women. Because you were not just vulnerable as a Tamil. There’s this threat of rape behind it.
These are ways in which language is used as a surveillance tool. That’s the political aspect. And that’s some of the painful history that people are bringing. It’s not just a question of how purely or how beautifully someone speaks Tamil, but how we were policed in how we spoke Sinhala as well.
And you will see that in your film. I hope this also becomes a talking point. Your Tamil actors would probably speak Sinhala a lot more easily and fluently. There’s a reason behind that. That’s something else that we need to tease out.
NG: I think that it’s really important to pull out of this small microcosm of this film and the Tamil reaction to it. The reaction is not to this film only. When one is digging into collective pain and collective trauma, things emerge. In this country, the violence that happened along the lines of language make it particularly painful. Even when my own work is critiqued by Tamils, I take it very much as something that is connecting to a very personal, very intimate pain inside of them. And yes, 1983 was a long time ago. But 2009 wasn’t that long ago.
What is emerging right now is in some ways very natural. It’s important to see it as part of this bigger experience of Tamils and to absorb it as such. When you see that kind of reflection on the screen, a number of things will come up.
There’s the beauty of hearing [the song] Paattu Padava from your childhood. But then there’s also the pain of the number of women that I know who were tricked by soldiers who were Sinhala speaking Tamil. Hearing that kind of inflection might evoke something. It’s not this kind of direct battle between the film and the Tamil community. This is just what one would expect from a community that’s suffered this kind of trauma.
NR: Some of the reaction is also because Funny Boy as a book means so much to a lot of young Tamil Canadians… South Asian Canadians, I would say even. For a long time, it was the only Canadian book in English that dealt with Tamil identity and that spoke to a South Asian queer experience. I taught Funny Boy. It has led to conversations; I’ve had students come out to me after we’ve done the book. I think it spoke to a lot of young folks.
On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss young folks who are active on social media. I’ve worked with young people a lot. They’re dealing with trauma. They’re dealing with depression. Our community has very high rates of depression. We have a high number of young people who take their own lives. There are so many young people I see who are desperate to see themselves in art, to see themselves reflected. So I’m very thankful for Funny Boy.
NG: In some of the recent work that I’ve done, I met with a lot of that older generation of the movement in London and other places. And there was this moment in the 1970s and in the early 1980s, where there was this natural alliance between different resistance struggles; between the Eritreans, Palestinians and the Sudanese. From working with young Tamils and other young activists, you see this increasingly siloed activism and a really narrow focus. And in some senses, I feel that we’ve lost this ability to create these alliances across the global south.
I mean [Ava] DuVernay picking up [Funny Boy to put on Netflix in the U.S.] is a huge entry point into an audience that the older generation has completely forgone politically. The inability of Tamils to ally with Black people in this country is insane to me. At its origin, the Tamil struggle had deep ties to other movements in the global south. In terms of like political futures, for our community and beyond, I’m hoping that this film is seen by some of these other [groups].
And maybe it is this struggle of sexual identity that pulls them toward the film. But they leave with the kind of political through-line between our struggles.