Funny Boy, directed by Deepa Mehta (no relation to the 1968 film Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand), is Canada’s entry for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year. Based on a novel told in six stories by Tamil-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai (he receives co-credit for writing the screenplay), the film tracks the growth of young Arjie Chelvaratnam against mounting violence in Sri Lanka, culminating with the 1983 ‘riots’. The word ‘riots’ is in quotes because the event was actually a Sinhalese government sanctioned pogrom which lasted a week and led to the looting and burning of Tamil households and shops, not to mention many Tamil deaths.
Selvadurai’s book, Funny Boy, exists as both a cornerstone of the Tamil exodus experience and an awkward topic of conversation for many Tamils. Traditional Tamil culture is quite conservative and hidebound, so discussing a book that frankly deals with homosexual identity, putting it front and centre, is more than some within the community can handle. However, due to the book’s success, it couldn’t be ignored either. For a younger generation of Tamils who lived in the diaspora, it became recognized as a novel that spoke to being queer while also alluding to the conflicts that created the diaspora in the first place. Growing up, it seemed to me that people either embraced the book as one that sensitively and authentically tackled the process of coming out or one that referenced the trauma of Black July, 1983. Back then, it was an either/or thing.
The strength of Selvadurai’s book was its gentleness. Slowly and deftly, it charts Arjie’s progress from child to budding teen. Each story carefully signals development in Arjie’s awareness. Over time, Arjie (and by extension the reader) becomes aware of the world around him, the kinds of people who live there, and the politics that intrude in their bourgeois middle class lives. Selvadurai has never really taken a political stance in his fiction and so the political tensions creep in around the edges until by the final chapter, they engulf the lives of the protagonist and his family.
This seems to have changed in the film. We will never really know to what extent Selvadurai agreed to the changes in narrative, but the film is neither subtle nor complex. It takes the ethnic tensions and queer identity and foregrounds them in the most stilted terms. Much of the nuance of character has been jettisoned in order to foreground three main stories: Radha Aunty, a young woman who has been set up to marry a Tamil abroad but falls in love with a Sinhalese man; the arrival of Jegan, the son of an old friend of Arjie’s father (who seems to have ties to the Tamil Tigers); and Arjie’s relationship with classmate Shehan (and subsequent discovery by Arjie’s parents). Though the original book tried to draw some connections between coming out and the oppression that Tamils faced in their home country, the film really bludgeons the two themes; the tagline on the poster reads “Love Was an Act of War.”
Perhaps the changes and broad sweeps were Selvadurai’s suggestions to begin with? Despite the freshness and daring of the book’s subject, his writing has always embraced a staid style and has never strayed from the comfortable and privileged milieu of successful Tamil life in Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital). In the movie, when Radha Aunty is sent to Jaffna (the other side of the country, where most Tamils live) so that she will be separated from the Sinhalese man she loves, we never see what she experiences there or what life might be like for Tamils who are not part of the Colombo elite. Instead, it primarily serves to support the scene where she comes back and is subject to an attack by a mob of Sinhalese who kill many of the people on Radha’s train.
The film has attracted a fair amount of controversy in the Tamil diaspora. My purpose in writing this review is not to wade into that mess, but an articulation of the criticisms can be read on this petition on change.org.
The criticisms centre around the marginalization of Tamil actors despite the prominence of the story’s Tamil characters, the horrible misrepresentation of Tamil language by the production, the allocation of Canadian funds to a cultural elite that doesn’t really allow much diversity despite paying lip service to the notion, and director Mehta’s association with Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa regime. I’m more interested in evaluating the merits of the film, but there are some instances where these concerns dovetail.
The short shrift that has been given to the original source material extends to the casting choices. Picking Sinhalese actors seems like an especially inconsiderate kick to the face in the wake of historical events and persecution. More importantly, these are actors who often aren’t familiar at all with Tamil. They either butcher the language or produce unintelligible speech. Mehta’s response to this problem was to get Tamil actors in India to dub over whole swaths of the film. Indian Tamil uses different inflections and accents than Sri Lankan Tamil (think of the huge variations in dialect between American states in the south and the north). It’s painful to see Agam Darshi (who plays Radha) talk in English and then switch into a fairly disembodied Tamil that sounds nothing like her usual voice. Neither the sound engineering nor the speeches sound integrated at all. There are times when characters ‘speak’ with their backs to us while the dubbing begins that makes you think of foreign exorcism movies and ramshackle student films.
The difficulties with language, delivery, and authenticity extend to the way actors relate or don’t relate to each other. Arjie’s father (played by Ali Kazmi) is not given much depth. He’s a staid, conventional Tamil more interested in his business interests and maintaining face than being sensitive to his household. Arjie’s mother is played by Nimmi Harasgama. She, like many of the other actors, never seems at ease with her role. With pinched expressions and shuffling steps, she and Kazmi haunt the edges of the frame, never having truly satisfactory interactions.
We are given to understand that she and her husband are not exactly kindred spirits and in the film, they clash over her tacit support for the Tigers. In the book, a whole story is given to her development and the dawning realization that she has an affair with another man who is investigating the Sinhalese. In the film, that is thrown away for a few scenes where she awkwardly encourages Jegan’s LTTE tendencies (once again, in the book, the impossibility of knowing Jegan’s true thoughts and whether he had any hand in a local bomb that was planted are handled much more deftly). Having seen some of the wonderfully comic ‘Auntie Netta’ videos that Harasgama herself has produced, full of zest and playful mischief, it’s painful to watch her uncertain face, playing someone younger than herself (while the actor playing her husband seems to be playing someone older), not knowing how to move or emote.
It raises the question of why people bother adapting novels in the first place. Books provide a sense of interiority and detail that is a function of their medium, a very different way of conveying information and experience than film. The best adaptations do something different, interpreting the material for the purposes of a visual medium that sutures its viewers into its experience in different ways. Simply watering down the plots and subtexts because the medium of film is a more universal one, and there’s more public recognition and cachet in terms of having a film made, are not sufficient reasons to go ahead with an adaptation. More than often, it becomes an excuse not to read the book and I almost think we should ban film adaptations in the same way we no longer look favourably on the novelizations of films. People should be encouraged to read original books instead.
The lack of chemistry or development in the acting is most keenly felt in the relationship between the teen Arjie (Brandon Ingram) and his classmate, Shehan (Rehan Muddanayake). First of all, it’s crazy that these actors are expected to be believed as teens – I think Arjie is something like thirteen or fourteen when he first falls in love. I’m sure they’re capable actors and Muddanayake especially exudes a sly, seductive, knowing energy that is palpable, but we don’t believe or experience their attraction, the texture and coupling of their illicit venture.
Like Radha falling for her Sinhalese paramour, all the interior doubt and confusion is stripped away – the two characters get together and hide their passions and the episode rushes towards a tepid conclusion. I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but gone is the feel of the life of the school and its oppressive atmosphere, the acts of aversion, betrayal, and rapprochement that define their relationship, the nebulous nature of the relationship to begin with, and the burden and ecstasy of discovering a kindred spirit. Instead, what we get is a very awkward dancing scene and 80s pop songs which are supposed to stand in for coded homosexuality.
I don’t imagine that it was easy to express being queer in Colombo in the early 80s (not to mention, now) but if this project should throw itself into anything, it should be the fullness of the interaction between Arjie and Shehan. This should be a project that ignites awareness of queer challenges in South Asian communities; it should spark discussions that we’ve always been reluctant to have. Instead, that aspect of the film feels as processed and microwaved as the ethnic tensions. No actual lovemaking is shown, just the odd post-coital shot or flirtation that doesn’t seem sexy so much as bored and unimaginative.
The scene and accompanying tension where Arjie and Shehan make love in the garage of his family’s home are completely elided, as are the ambiguities of Shehan’s other secret dalliances and experiences. All we ever see of the garage is the outside of it, where the rest of the family stand, as if that was the easiest shot to produce. And I still have no idea why Mehta randomly inserts a ‘teen’ Arjie in the childhood scenes and a ‘child’ Arjie in the teen scenes – did someone mistakenly type out the call sheets? The whole experience left me hankering for the intensity and fulsomeness of a Gregg Araki film.
More than the mismanaged narrative decisions, more than the errors in representation or consideration of the actual people being portrayed, what I was really disappointed about was the sheer laziness of the production.
The colours are beautiful, employing the exotic greens, reds, and golden browns of Merchant Ivory films from the 1990s and early 2000s. But the Merchant Ivory team knew how to build drama and construct scenes. Their themes of oppression and freedom and forbidden love were fine back then, but would seem a bit dated and simplistic now. Aesthetic considerations and conflicts around personal and political freedom have advanced in the last generation and have grappled more with intersectional concerns. We have a modern viewership that’s hungry for intelligent, incisive tales. Mehta has an eye for framing, but seems to always prefer wide shots, using handheld camera that never really utilizes the strategic close ups and montage necessary for crafting strong emotional scenes or building character and conflict.
Beside the dramatic beats — which are lazy — the climactic scenes of violence, such as the attack on the train that Radha is on, are lifeless and unconvincing; they lack the energy, horror, and production values necessary to make their statement. I thought the energy used portraying the Black July pogrom, which happens towards the end of the film, might build towards the necessary frenzy and horror. But despite a little more work on that scene (and a few more extras wielding torches and weapons), it also feels anticlimactic. With the inclusion of 80s pop songs, I was fully expecting close-ups of the destruction to Arjie’s house and the unforgettable image at the end of the book of vinyl records that had melted, but these were not there.
This has been one of my longer reviews and at the end of it, I’m still not sure what to say about the film. Some Tamils are boycotting the film, others will not care about its existence one way or another, but since the film is Canada’s entry for the Oscars, I don’t think it will matter – people will end up seeing it anyway.
Whether those non-Tamils will see this as a weak film hobbled by its poor choices or an attractive and lite way of engaging Tamil identity is anyone’s guess. Tamils are a minority that, for all I know, may be perceived by outsiders as shrill complainers. For many people reading this review, they may have no idea who Tamils are or perhaps all they know is that Tamils were involved in a war that claimed headlines during the eighties and nineties and culminated in a few blocked thoroughfares staged by the Tamil diaspora.
What I do know is that reading the original book twenty-five years ago knocked me for a loop – I’d never seen my homeland and its culture captured in an English language novel before. It was remarkable. In this era, we shouldn’t be settling for those same basic stakes. Tamils and Canadians should be looking for modern, complex ways of representing our lives. It’s true that Tamils can be dour and staid, but they can also be irrepressibly sharp and funny and sentimental and cynical; there’s a rhythmic and hurried quality to the way we speak. We can be polite and conservative but we can also be heated and neurotic, just like anyone else. We have a penchant for melodrama and strife (in both our personal lives as well as our entertainment), but we also produce some of the keenest, ambitious minds in a multiplicity of fields.
Watching Mehta’s film, you’d think that tense conversation and an isolated slap were the height of impropriety and scandal. Trust me – we’ve taken much worse. We have a legacy of trauma, but we’re also extremely adaptable and resourceful. There’s a line early on in Mehta’s film where one of the characters says ‘we are the Jews of Asia.’ If that analogy is correct, then we should also be looking to make inroads into comedy, culture, film, and writing in the way the Jewish diaspora brought their talents to the places they settled.
There’s a whole generation of younger Tamils looking for opportunities to break out from the traditions of their families while celebrating and remembering them, and they should be encouraged. These people should be encouraged to build and bring forth more intelligent, nuanced stories and expand the idea of what it is to be Tamil; to engage its multiplicity and complexity. Hopefully, they will remember the pain and tribulation of my generation and the generations before us so that new stories and identities and spaces can be fashioned for all of us. But that requires a great deal of hard work. Looking back to isolated successes and fossilizing them will not really help in the long run. Even Shyam Selvadurai seems to be having difficulty accessing what made his book a nuanced, fresh success twenty-five years ago. In the end, this film assumes you will see it simply because you’ve read the book (or want to avoid reading the book), and does little to give characters and scenes their own footing. At the very least, it was better than Mehta’s Beeba Boys.