By Karl Rozemeyer

Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy opens in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, in 1974. Against a soundscape of birdsong and a backdrop of the Indian Ocean meeting a solid blue sky, the silhouetted figures of young children burst from the tropical forest onto the beach. They carry palm fronds and sing joyously. Some of the girls wear colourful tulle skirts. One is dressed as a priest in white ecclesiastical robes; another as a groom. The “wedding party” is led by Arjie, the only boy of the group. He is the appointed bride and his veil swirls behind him in the breeze. His sequined red wedding sari matches his lipstick. The children run down the length of the beach, waving to the passengers of a steam train running parallel to the sea. For Arjie and his friends, it is a time of carefree innocence and freedom.

Funny Boy closes around twenty years later in Canada. Having lost their home and endured a harrowing four months sheltering in a Colombo church compound with few possessions, Arjie and his family arrive on a dark winter’s night at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Outside, the ground is thick with snow. The family huddles and shivers in the cold. The open-toed sandals worn by Arjie’s mother offer her feet little protection. His aunt Radha, who meets the new arrivals, chastises the family for having not waited inside the warm terminal. As Arjie and Radha share a moment of private reflection, his brother expresses his irritation. Arjie’s mother comments with undisguised bitterness: “He can do what he wants. In this new world, we are all free slaves.” For Arjie and his family, innocence and freedom have been lost.

“After 26 years, the Sri Lankan Civil War ended in 2009. More than one million Tamils left as refugees in that period,” the film’s closing credits announce. Many Tamils, like Arjie, found shelter, safety and the chance of a new beginning in Canada.

Funny Boy is Deepa Mehta’s fourteenth feature as director. Her films include the celebrated Elemental Trilogy Earth (1996), Fire (1998) and Water (2005), as well as Midnight’s Children (2012), based upon Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel. It was recently announced that Funny Boy will represent Canada in the Best International Feature Film category at the 2021 Academy Awards. “When we got the news that it was Canada’s submission for the Oscars, I just jumped. At my age, that’s kind of stupid,” laughs the 70-year-old director. “I just felt like a kid.”

Based on the novel of the same name by Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy traces Arjie’s young life from childhood through adolescence to the onset of early adulthood. While the other boys play cricket, young Arjie prefers to disappear into games of fantasy, often dressing up as a girl. Although told that a boy cannot be a bride and taunted with homophobic slurs, Arjie remains undaunted. His father looks on disapprovingly and blames his wife for encouraging “all this nonsense.” When she pressures her eldest son, Diggy, to include his brother in cricket, Arjie laments “Why do I have to play with the boys?”

Radha, his 25-year-old aunt who has studied in Canada, recognises and celebrates Arjie’s singularity. Beautiful, with a devil-may-care love of cut-off jeans and Leonard Cohen songs, Radha privately swathes her nephew in a feather boa. She paints his toenails red and instructs him to hide his feet under socks, declaring this “a joyful secret.” When she takes eight-year-old Arjie to audition for a local production of The King and I, his father objects, wary that acting may fan his son’s “girly tendency.”

“The purpose was always Arjie. He drove the story,” Mehta points out. “Once you knew who was driving the story, it was very easy to navigate where you wanted to go with it and where you wanted to end up. In my head, even when we were doing rehearsals, working with the young Arjie and…the people around young Arjie, you could see the dynamics happening right in front of you; how family members influence each other; the desire of the mother for her son to be fine. You could feel the love from that actress. You could feel, not the disapproval, but the desire to protect the son from the father…To follow Arjie was like following a lotus in a river. We just sort of wandered with it. And it blossomed and then it closed, and then it blossomed again. It was a journey.”

“Why does everyone say I’m funny? What does that mean?” Arjie, asks with candid naiveté. His father’s explanation is that a funny man is “a bad man who does bad things.” Radha later tells Arjie that his father is “frightened by anyone who is different.”

Fear of difference – and its consequences – is to become a leitmotif in Arjie’s world experience as the film’s focus expands to include the simmering social and political tensions in Sri Lanka that inevitably begin to encroach on (and eventually eclipse) the boy’s daily life. During the 1970s, ethnic and religious tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities mounted. Arjie and his family are wealthy Tamils, descendants of Hindu tea-plantation workers brought from India to Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon) in the 1800s. After Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Tamil minority raised their voices against discrimination – exhibited in schools, the workplace and elsewhere – by the Buddhist Sinhalese, who vastly outnumbered the Tamil and who controlled the government.

Young Arjie first encounters the socio-political unease that infects the country when Radha, who is betrothed through a family arrangement to a fellow Tamil, begins seeing Anil, a charismatic and artistic Sinhalese. Swept up by a lofty notion of the meaning of romance, Arjie aids and abets Radha in her forbidden relationship, ferrying letters between her and Anil after an enforced separation by their families. “What do you know about love?” Arjie’s mother admonishes him, warning that Radha will never be allowed into any of their families’ homes if she were to marry a Sinhalese. But when Radha returns to Colombo from the Tamil-dominated north where she had been banished, Sinhalese agitators attack the train station, butchering Tamil women and children and stabbing Radha. She survives but, with her idealism destroyed, Radha leaves for Canada and succumbs to the loveless marriage arranged by her parents.

Mehta recollects a “beautiful quote” from writer James Baldwin that she read around the time that she came across Shyam Selvadurai’s novel. “He says perhaps the reason why people hang onto hate for so long and so stubbornly, is that the moment they will let go of it, they will feel the pain,” Mehta paraphrases. “The minute you feel the pain is the minute you start the healing. [Given] the history and the turmoil that Sri Lanka has been through, [it must] build that bridge of solidarity… The hatred has to go. We have to let go of it. And we will feel the pain. But unless we feel the pain, there’s no chance of the healing to start.”

Against the backdrop of civil unrest, Arjie enters Victoria Academy. Tamil students are routinely bullied and harassed by Sinhalese boys. There Arjie meets 17-year-old Shehan in whom he sees a kindred spirit and a soul with a similar sensitivity. The two become fast friends. Arjie spends afternoons after school at Shehan’s sprawling if unkempt upper middle class home. Shehan’s bedroom walls are plastered with posters of British gender-bending icons of the ‘80s: Boy George, David Bowie, Annie Lennox. Because his mother passed away when he was three, and his father travels abroad frequently for extended periods of time, Shehan is left largely to his own devices. In the comparative freedom offered by Shehan’s home, the two boys fall in love.

For Mehta, one of the scenes that encapsulates the essence of the film is “the two young boys, when they’re in love and they dance to Every Breath You Take [by The Police]. It’s about innocence. It’s about love. It’s about purity. There’s a lot of space around them and they are so together. And then you realise: ‘Oh my God, of course! It’s a love story.’ For me, that is a beautiful moment because it is the epitome of the novel.”

But the union is ultimately doomed: Shehan is Sinhalese and Arjie is Tamil.

During this time, Jegan, a new employee of Arjie’s father, becomes a boarder in the family home. It soon becomes apparent that he is aligned with the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla organisation fighting to establish an independent Tamil state, Eelam, in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Young Tamils were drawn to the Tigers by what they perceived as State-sponsored terrorism by Sinhalese. Arjie’s mother finds herself attracted to the younger and good-looking activist, even showing sympathy with his cause, despite its violent methods. Tamil Tigers are not fighting “for people like us,” she quips to her husband at one point. Arjie’s father seems more concerned with protecting his amassed wealth than with supporting Tamil political aspirations. “The trick,” he tells Jegan, “is to go out there and make your money while you can.” Jegan’s response is quick: “Yes, until the Sinhalese take it all away.”

“The mother is really disappointed with her husband, for not doing anything, or not taking a stand against the government [in favour of] Jegan, who is their lodger and a family friend,” Mehta observes. “And they do it in complete silence. But in that silence, you know that this relationship is going to be in real trouble…But, as a woman, it was very important for me because the awakening of a housewife into somebody who has a political identity is so strong.”

As the civil war escalates, Tamils are attacked in the streets, bombs are detonated and marauding gangs roam through Colombo. Packing only a few important possessions and their passports, the family flees to a sympathetic neighbour’s house where they are given shelter. Their home is ransacked by violent mobs, their furniture and belongings looted and destroyed. Commenting on this moment in the film, Mehta observes: “I enjoy doing crowd scenes. I’ve done many violent crowd scenes. I find it is like a math problem – and I’m not really good at math. You really have to be creative… But the point is: what is the emotional core of that scene? So, it’s not just violence for the sake of violence. It isn’t a crowd scene for the sake of crowd scene. When they desecrate the house, I wanted it to feel [like] they are desecrating a family. The emotional core of every crowd scene or every scene of violence had to be an emotional one. Without that, it becomes a spectacle.”

For Mehta, the novel Funny Boy has greater impact now than it had when she first read it 26 years ago: “This time when I read it again – which was three years ago – I felt that the resonance was completely different. I loved it then and I loved it now. Not more, but I felt it really spoke of the times that we find ourselves in. And I’m not just talking about Sri Lanka… Whether you are a nuclear family in North America or whether you are an extended family in India or whether you are another extended family in Mexico, that bond is one that forms us.”

And it is in the particular that Mehta finds universality. “The film… is about this family and this young man. But because it was so particular, it became a very universal story. Yes, it’s a very particular story about Sri Lanka. And, yes, it’s a very particular story about love. But because it’s that, it’s a universal story.” She believes that the story will resonate with every human being. “I’m an Indian immigrant to Canada. I said: ‘Oh my God, Funny Boy is about all of us being immigrants!’ It’s not just about whether we are White or Caucasian or Black or Brown. We all are trying to find our space in the world.”

Funny Boy is streaming now on Netflix.

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  • Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha
    13 December 2020 at 10:33 am

    I want to compliment Karl Rozemeyer for this comprehensive and very well written review..
    I have taken the liberty of sharing it in my Facebook page, and I hope others will read and “re-share” it. This movie certainly is, as Karl says, “a story that will resonate with every human being”.
    Just one minor correction needed in Karl Rozemeyer’s otherwise excellent review: “Arjie and his family are descendants of Hindu tea-plantation workers brought from India to Sri Lanka in the 1800s”.
    The fact is that in Shyam Selvadurai’s book, Arjie’s family, the Chelvaratnams, are ethnic Tamils – descendants of people who have been living in Sri Lanka, the majority in the northern Jaffna peninsula, for several centuries.
    Thank you for an excellent review!

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