Deepa Mehta Funny Boy, Story of young gay man growing up in Sri Lanka

Why representation of Deepa Mehta's Funny Boy has angered the Tamil community?

The story of young gay men growing up in Sri Lanka has very few Tamils in leading roles.

When Funny Boy's adaptation of the Academy Award nominee Deepa Mehta—the much-lauded story of a gay young man coming of age before and after the Sri Lankan Civil War—was declared as Canada's entry for the Oscar's best foreign film category, it was cause for celebration.

Deepa Mehta
Deepa Mehta

Today, weeks after the declaration, several Tamil diaspora organisations call for a boycott.

"We were really pleased and happy about it," said Canadian comedian and actor Sunthar Vykunthanathan. "And over the past few weeks, understanding how it all went down was deeply disappointing."

Funny Child, adapted from Sri Lankan-born Canadian novel Shyam Selvadurai, follows the story of Arjun (Arjie) Chelvaratnam, a young gay man who grew up in Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s Tamil-Sinhalese war.

Soon after the book's 1994 publication, it acquired legendary status for portraying the queer Tamil community. Growing up, Vykunthanathan said the novel was the only cultural touchstone of a sense of queerness and Tamil-ness and Canadianity" to hang onto him and others.

But after the film's trailer announcement, many book fans were disappointed. While a Tamil people film, hardly any of the lead actors were Tamil themselves. They also struggled with Tamil — bad enough that Mehta, an Indo-Canadian, described the end result as very dodgy."

"This film should have been our Moonlight," said Vykunthanathan, referring to Miami's 2017 Oscar's best picture winner about a young, gay black man growing up. "Yet it's traumatic and retraumatizing by throwing away the meaning of Tamil-ness by language—which is partly why we were discriminated against in that nation."

Funny Boy scene
Funny Boy scene

Casting trouble

In the weeks after release of the trailer, Mehta tried to reconcile with the Tamil community. She met with the Canadian Tamil Congress and said in an interview with CBC that the voices of actors were being re-recorded to enhance the Tamil before CBC Gem's Dec. 4 premiere. That was what they wanted to finish earlier, but they were unable because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted filming.

She also said that Tamil was "50%" of the cast, though few made it into leading roles.

Language played an important part in Funny Boy's real-life activities. The film traces Arjie up to Black July, an anti-Tamil pogrom that killed between 400 and 3,000 people everywhere. Among other things, violence had origins in language disparities between groups in the region, at one time banning Tamil language.

Mehta argued that secondary to Arjie's character's more structurally important component.

"Actors play who they can be if they're from Canada or Timbuktu, whether they're going to be Indian, that's what they're," Mehta said, referring to her previous encounters casting her productions.

"What's important was having a gay Arjie. That's the most important portrayal in this film for me."

The novel's author and screenplay had identical view. Selvadurai, who mixed Tamil/Sinhalese background, said the fact that Arjie's character is played by an openly gay Sri Lankan was always one of the most important things for him and he's flattered that so many care so much about the plot.

"I'm just honored that people are so enthusiastic about the book that I don't really care if the debate is passionate," he said. "At least if they speak and talk about it among themselves."

Brandon Ingram, a theater actor in Sri Lanka who recently came out as gay — which Mehta says she finds highly impressive as Sri Lanka still criminalizes same-sex behaviour.

The choice was made after searching Tamil actors for the role around the world—from England to New York to Toronto to Sri Lanka. It was an exhausting search, she said, and although she found two other Tamil actors she needed for the script, one dropped out as she couldn't get a visa to go to Sri Lanka as a refugee. The other an Ontario-based actor, fell out due to family problems. (Shortly after Mehta's interview, actor Suthan Mahalingam posted an apparently authenticated video.)

Other Tamils declined to participate because could compromise them" in a gay film, she said, as they are still a fragile minority.

"I mean, who'll you persecute?" Mehta said. "We're doing our hardest. If you want the movie, finding the right people would have been fine, but nobody was playing brownface here."

Vykunthanathan thinks production hasn't done enough. Toronto has the highest concentration of Tamils outside of South Asia, which he said would give Mehta a substantial pool of talent. Even as a queer comedian and musician, he said he'd learn about the project if substantial attempts were made to attract Tamil people.

"What we need to worry about is when we say Tamil a story, why aren't Tamils involved?" he said. "If we tell a black story, will we be OK with a white person playing that part because they're gay?"