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Deepa Mehta’s first encounter with Shyam Selvadurai cast the director in a role reversal of sorts. The two met in 1989, years before they each became Canadian celebrities in their own right – Mehta for her films and Selvadurai for his books. Mehta had been asked by a producer friend to act in a TV series episode based on one of Selvadurai’s stories. The part was of a Sri Lankan woman.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t know how to act.’ I’d never done it in my life. And he said, ‘We’re desperate. … We can’t find anybody who can wear a sari.’ Can you imagine? Those were the days,” Mehta says. “It was such a beautiful story. It was called In Limbo and was about a Sri Lankan Tamil doctor who had moved to Canada and how the sound of bombs, or anything, would disrupt her life.”
More than 30 years after that first collaboration, Mehta and Selvadurai are now set to release Funny Boy, a movie based on Selvadurai’s acclaimed debut novel, published in 1994. It tells the coming-of-age story of Arjie Chelvaratnam, whose sexual awakening as a gay man is set against the backdrop of rising political tensions in Sri Lanka. The unrest in the island country eventually led to Black July – the anti-Tamil pogrom that broke out in 1983 after the Tamil militant group LTTE killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers. The violence sparked a civil war that lasted 26 years before the Sri Lankan government declared an end to the brutal conflict in May, 2009. Many Sri Lankan Tamils escaping the conflict found refuge in Canada, including Selvadurai’s mixed Tamil-Sinhalese family.
Starring Brandon Ingram, Nimmi Harasgama, Ali Kazmi , Shivantha Wijesinha and Agam Darshi among others, Funny Boy premieres in select Canadian theatres later this month and on CBC and its streaming service CBC Gem Dec. 4. It arrives with a good deal of buzz (it is Canada’s official submission for the 2021 Academy Awards for best international feature film; Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY acquired the film for a Netflix release outside Canada) and controversy (more on that in a moment).
Recalling her attempt to act all those years ago, Mehta is her own harshest critic during a recent Zoom call.
“I was quite bad, but I did my best, and that’s how I met Shyam. And then five years later, when Funny Boy came out … I read it and I fell in love with it. Because for me it had reverberations of what he had first tried to do in 1989,” she says.
“It means this young man had lived with that whole trauma, for so many years, and then to be able to come out and write what it was like to be a refugee. And what the memories of Sri Lanka were …” she trails off, continuing to marvel at the assuredness of Selvadurai’s first novel and how deeply it resonated with her.
Funny Boy reminded her of the stories about the Partition of India and Pakistan that she’d heard growing up in Amritsar, Punjab. Then there was her own experience with the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 in India. Mehta was in New Delhi when the carnage tore the city apart.
“Just to see what it was like for our Sikh neighbours in Panchsheel Park, you know. And how we hid them, and how the goons came over – there were actually so many things, that actually on so many levels reverberated with me personally,” she says. “What it’s like to leave your home, what it’s like to be marginalized. How easy it is to – whether it’s your turban or whether it’s your pottu [vermilion dot worn on the forehead], or the way you wear your sari, that immediately identifies you [as the other]. Even if your skin colour might be the same, or similar. … It’s about the oppression of minorities.”
Mehta tried to option the book, but British director Gurinder Chadha beat her to the negotiating table. Many filmmakers were interested in taking on Funny Boy, Selvadurai says in a separate Zoom interview. But none of the scripts seemed to work – especially when it came to keeping the central character Arjie’s narrative consciousness.
“I just pulled it at some point,” says Selvadurai of the many attempts to adapt it. “I thought this book is very important for many young people, especially young queer South Asians, and I am now its custodian. And I don’t want them to see something that’s a travesty of the book.”
Years later, a Sri Lankan filmmaker friend suggested that Selvadurai adapt Funny Boy himself. He sat down to watch some of his favourite films – such as the works of Merchant-Ivory, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis – with a timer in hand.
“It was so amazing to see these films that I’d loved reveal themselves structurally,” he says. “So I finished [a first draft] and sent it to my agent on a lark, thinking he’d say something like, ‘Nice try.’ But he liked it.”
As Mehta had already adapted a part of Funny Boy for CBC Radio, she was Selvadurai’s first choice of director. Besides helping Selvadurai craft his screenplay into a tighter script and add scenes full of meaningful silences, Mehta was also keen on adding Tamil dialogues.
“A butcher in Colombo speaking in English – it just didn’t sound right,” she says.
As Selvadurai doesn’t speak the language, well-known Tamil poet and Toronto academic Rudhramoorthy Cheran was tasked with translating the dialogue.
Although Funny Boy features a significant number of Sri Lankan actors – from the country or its diaspora – its lead parts are played by actors who either aren’t ethnically Sri Lankan Tamil or don’t speak Tamil. When the trailer for the film started gaining momentum on social media this fall, critics were quick to point out mangled Tamil dialogues and raise issues of representation. Given that the Sri Lankan conflict was based on linguistic and ethnic differences, some members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora have been making strident calls for a boycott of the film. Others, while acknowledging the missed opportunity to cast Sri Lankan Tamil talent or Tamil-speaking actors, point to the importance of a film exploring a painful chapter of Sri Lankan history making it to the big screen, so to speak. In response to the commentary on the Tamil dialogues, actors’ voices are being rerecorded before Funny Boy debuts on CBC.
Mehta says she did try to cast Sri Lankan Tamil actors from Toronto, besides holding auditions in England and Sri Lanka. She enlisted the help of Lenin M. Sivam, a Toronto-based Sri Lankan Tamil filmmaker (Roobha). In a phone call, Sivam confirms that Mehta reached out to him in November, 2018, and that he recommended three actors to her. However, they were unable to perform in Funny Boy because of family matters or visa issues.
“I really wanted him,” says Mehta, referring to Toronto actor Suthan Mahalingam, one of Sivam’s suggestions and the actor she’d selected for the central role of Jegan. Unfortunately, Mahalingam had to drop out. His father had to undergo heart surgery during the filming schedule, which had been delayed six months owing to difficulties obtaining permission to film in Sri Lanka, despite Funny Boy being widely read and taught at high school and universities there.
“You have to have script approval, and it can only come from the highest of offices,” says Mehta, addressing online commentators accusing her of being cozy with questionable leaders.
Making a film in South Asia sees one having cups of tea with people who hold diametrically opposite world views, she adds. That could be the head of the RSS, a Hindu supremacist group affiliated with the Hindu nationalist BJP government currently in power in India, as she did for Water. Or it could be having local lawyers liaise with the office of Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lankan president, whose decade-long repressive term was rife with allegations of human-rights violations and corruption charges.
For example, when Mehta was shooting her film Midnight’s Children in Sri Lanka more than a decade ago, the production was stalled when a government vehicle drove into the middle of the set and served them a notice, she recounts. The Sri Lankan government was reportedly working at the behest of Iran, which has a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. It took almost a week to get hold of Rajapaksa and get the order overturned.
“I think what probably deterred him was the fact that there would have been adverse publicity in the middle of the [2009 Sri Lankan] elections,” she says.
The part of Jegan ended up going to Sri Lankan Sinhalese actor Shivantha Wijesinha. The character, a Sri Lankan Tamil man who had briefly joined the LTTE, is complex, and Wijesinha plays it with smouldering intensity.
“I come from a political approach to Sri Lanka, which is about solidarity across communities. So yes, it would have been fantastic if we could have had Sri Lankan Colombo Tamil actors,” Selvadurai says. “What we have is a fantastic cast who inhabit the world in an authentic way. And who are all progressively, politically vocal.”
For Selvadurai, the fact that a publicly out gay Sri Lankan actor played Arjie – an iconic figure for queer South Asians across the globe – is “something miraculous.”
“My dream for the film on Dec. 4, when it comes on CBC, is that some multigenerational Sri Lankan Tamil family sitting in either their little row house or apartment in Finch and Pharmacy [neighbourhood in Scarborough] where I grew up – that they watch this movie, and it opens up a dialogue. It opens up a way of talking about what happened,” he says.
Funny Boy opens in select Canadian theatres Nov. 27, and will be available to stream on CBC Gem starting Dec. 4.