Review: Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy has room for nuance

FUNNY BOY (Deepa Mehta). 109 minutes. Airing on CBC and streaming on CBC Gem December 4. Rating: NNN

Adapting Funny Boy is no joke. Shyam Selvadurai’s collection of short stories revolve around Arjie, a young queer Tamil boy who tries to keep his head up in Sri Lanka, where being gay is criminalized; and being Tamil, history shows, is punishable under martial law.

This story’s intimate coming-of-age arc is set against a complex and hostile social environment but there’s too much in Selvadurai’s 1994 debut to be contained in a single film. Director Deepa Mehta’s screen adaptation is often admirable, or at the least fascinating, for its attempt to incorporate the book’s multitudes and for the nuances it builds into a melodrama largely told in broad and obvious strokes.

In an early scene, young Arjie (Arush Nand) plays dressup as a bride and is ridiculed by a cousin visiting from the UK. The scene signals what the character will face in the future for his sexual transgressions. But the ensuing fight between children, where language is weaponized, also hints at the sociopolitical fight brewing in the country, between the majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamils.

Funny Boy isn’t just a coming-of-age story for Arjie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Sri Lanka, chronicling how the country’s hatred for its minority populations becomes entrenched. And it’s telling that the sequence with the children takes place only a couple years after the country abandoned Ceylon, its name under colonial rule, to become Sri Lanka, the name for a new kind of oppression.

In a later scene, an older Arjie (Brandon Ingram), who is repeatedly tormented by Sinhalese bullies at school, narrowly avoids humiliation for being Tamil. Arjie is shoved out of a washroom and stumbles goofily into Shehan, the Sinhalese boy who is responsible for his sexual awakening. The tonal flip from physical threat to arousal, where racial tensions giving way to sexual tension, is an absurd and lovely shorthand the film doesn’t always employ so successfully.

In this Funny Boy, history is condensed. Characters and dialogue are often burdened with spelling out not only the anxiety between the Tamils and Sinhalese, but also the fissures and class issues within the Tamil community. Arjie’s family are wealthy Tamils who live in the Sinhalese-dominant capital Colombo. That privilege buys them a safe distance to decide whether or not they support a growing armed movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers.

The most compelling character in the film isn’t Arjie but his mother, referred to only as Amma (Nimmi Harasgama). She gets the most complex internal struggle, torn between nurturing her son’s individuality or setting him straight. On the surface, she follows her husband’s political propriety, but she whispers allegiance to the Tigers from within the comforts he affords her.

Funny Boy, the film, is clearly most invested in the country’s political turmoil, and how Arjie’s family position themselves around it. The queer story sort of hangs there as a result.

But the Tamil story suffers too as a result of the film’s casting. I’ve already written extensively about a sore lack of Tamil leads in the film and how the absence of such voices undermines the film’s politics.

Since hearing criticism regarding the actors and how they “butcher” the Tamil language, Mehta and her team re-dubbed some of the dialogue. Actor Seema Biswas, who plays Arjie’s grandmother, has had her voice completely replaced by Tamil-Canadian filmmaker Sumathy Balaram. Agam Darshi and Ali Kazmi, who play Arjie’s aunt and father, respectively, were coached to improve their delivery. Kazmi’s improvement is actually impressive and Balaram’s disembodied voice teases an authenticity that should have been there to begin with.

But these are issues that would only throw off people familiar with the Tamil language. The film should work better for anyone unaffected by the story it tells.

For more on Funny Boy, watch NOW’s video roundtable below with director Deepa Mehta and author Shyam Selvadurai or read about it here.


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