We can finally share the joyful secret that is Funny Boy. Deepa Mehta’s latest drama is a buoyant, soulful, and refreshingly openhearted film. Both a love story and a compelling tale of one Tamil family’s road to Canada while escaping the civil war in Sri Lanka, Funny Boy explores the ways in which prejudice traverses cultures, communities, and families. Sometimes the oppressed may also be the oppressor. Mehta’s film boldly offers a humanist fable, ripped from lived experience and delivered from the heart. It invites audiences to see the world through another’s eyes. The view is heartbreaking and beautiful.
Funny Boy envisions the world through young Arjie’s eyes. Arush Nand plays Arjie in his formative years and Brandon Ingram assumes the role in the character’s early adulthood. From early childhood, Arjie’s friends and family members call him a funny boy. When it comes to sports, he prefers throwing a bouquet to bridesmaids over tossing a ball to cricket players. He likes make-up and pretty things—jewellery and nail polish. The latter provides the “joyful secret” that reframes Arjie’s way of seeing the world. His beloved aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) offers conspiratorial strokes of her paintbrush atop his toes. Arjie tucks his lacquered tootsies under his socks away from the world to see. He removes his foot from hiding when alone, discovering his true self with a wiggle of the toes. Mehta is not one to keep piggies under blankets, though, and her film is an act of creating inclusive spaces.
“Because the sky is high and pigs can’t fly”
Adapted from the 1994 novel by Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy, like Arjie’s secretive toes, rejoices in seeing the world anew. The film differs somewhat from Selvadurai’s book, most notably dispensing with the section of the novel in which Arjie’s mother loses an old flame to violence. However, Mehta, writing the screenplay with Selvadurai, unfolds Arjie’s sexual awakening with the growing cultural unrest in Sri Lanka. Mirroring two markedly different forms of oppression and “othering” is no easy task. Yet Mehta pulls it off, delivering the tricky feat of making a story both specific and universal. However, the story of the Tamils’ suppression respects the experiences of members of the diaspora and viewers who encounter racial and cultural prejudice daily. Funny Boy smartly integrates this duality in some scenes, while exploring the themes in isolation in others, which ultimately does justice to both facets of the story. Arjie’s growth as a gay Tamil man in a country where homosexuality remains illegal, moreover, shows that some wars continue in the wake of others.
The dual aspects of representation converge in Funny Boy as Arjie ages. As a child, he becomes an outsider when his games of “best bride” with the girls humiliate his family. Arjie doesn’t understand what makes him “funny,” so to speak, since his elders are too uncomfortable to articulate their shame. “Because the sky is high and pigs can’t fly” is the closest answer Arjie gets from his Amma (Nimmi Harasgama). In a child’s world, though, pigs have wings through flights of the imagination. Cue a special aunty and some practical magic to make Arjie feel a-okay.
Radha Aunty and Curly Shehan
When Radha Aunty enters the picture, Mehta creates a safe space that she soon subverts. Radha dotes over Arjie and he becomes as close to a gay bff a woman can have in 1970s’ Colombo. However, when Radha invites Arjie to join her in a theatre troupe, she teaches him that love knows no boundaries. Radha falls in love with a Sinhalese actor even though she’s betrothed to another man. Arjie recognizes her happiness. He sees how she flourishes outside the confines of her family. He also witnesses how she keeps her love a secret and draws the ire of her mother (Seema Biswas) when their relationship is discovered. Radha’s lost love shatters Arjie’s idealized image of brides and marriage that carried him through childhood. However, in recognizing Radha’s pain, he finds inspiration in later years to fight for love despite all odds.
The Romeo to Arjie’s Juliet is Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), a charming Sinhalese boy he meets in school years later. Boasting hair more tousle-worthy than Timothée Chalamet’s curly locks, Mudannayake plays the heartthrob very well, making Shehan a loving ally to Arjie in the way Radha was before. Shehan becomes Arjie’s salvation and protector amid a class of Sinhalese bullies, who immediately target the lone Tamil. Arjie, shy and bashful after long resisting his “funny boy” status, can’t hide from the mature and confident Shehan. Romance blossoms, sweetly and naturally, without the young men dancing around the usual “are they or aren’t they” tension. Mehta offers some David Bowie posters and Bronski Beat to unite the boys in their queerness. The enclosure of Shehan’s bedroom becomes a safe space and their sanctuary, a place where boys can be boys and men can be men—together.
Safe Space amid Black July
Arjie and Shehan realise their love as the civil war erupts with the Black July massacre of 1983. Here Mehta spins the element of forbidden love on them both. Mehta centres the drama of each scene around the dynamic of straddling two worlds. Both men, as well as Arjie’s family and Tamil relations, navigate spaces in which they are not wanted. Funny Boy unfolds not in the streets of Colombo, but in the hallways, closets, and closed-door bedrooms of its characters. It conveys how people like Arjie negotiate their right to belong.
Mehta evokes the quandary of navigating space through an unconventional queering of cinematic spaces. Low angles and handheld camerawork envision the drama in compositions outside a classical Hollywood gaze. An emphasis on natural light, with colours gorgeously emphasised by cinematographer Douglas Koch, envelopes the story in palpable warmth. Each frame of Funny Boy is curious and inviting. Mehta shows audiences a world they likely haven’t seen in cinema before. Howard Shore’s buoyant music, moreover, effortlessly guides the film’s many emotional and dramatic turns without being sentimental.
The naturalism of the aesthetics serves the performances well. The two breakthrough performers, Ingram and Mudannayake, are quite extraordinary in their first film leads. They have excellent chemistry as the young men discovering themselves anew. They’re both true naturals with Ingram gradually allowing Arjie to blossom and Mudannayake proving a scene-stealer with his magnetic presence. (It’s not hard to see why Arjie’s so smitten.) Mehta draws strong performances from the ensemble, notably Darshi and Harasgama, as well as Canuck Ali Kazmi as Arjie’s unsentimental father.
Funny Boy tasks the actors with navigating several languages in a single exchange. Mehta’s film is a mix of Tamil, Sinhala, and English with language playing a pivotal role. Characters negotiate language just as they do space. A quick switch between Tamil and Sinhala, or Tamil and English, illustrates the mechanisms by which characters survive. To misspeak is to invite danger. Moreover, English injects class dynamics into Arjie’s family, wealthy Tamils among the Sinhalese majority. If some of the non-Tamil actors struggle with the language, however, the film nevertheless remains emotionally authentic thanks to the heartfelt performances. (Full disclosure: as a non-Tamil viewer, I watched the film twice: once before the language controversy became public and once after. Neither time could I recognise actors struggling with the language..)
Mehta again proves herself a singular voice in Canadian cinema with Funny Boy. If there’s a through-line in Mehta’s work, it’s the simple assertion, “We’re here.” It’s how she comes by the project honestly, having spent a life navigating the same spaces Arjie explores.
Funny Boy carves a unique space for representation in Canadian cinema when it’s desperately needed. This film feels like the culmination of Mehta’s ouevre. Like Sam and Me, it’s a poignant story of encounters and like Fire, it’s a bold tale of queer love. Like Water, it boldly challenges the status quo. As with Bollywood/Hollywood, Funny Boy is a joyful celebration. And as with Midnight’s Children, it’s both ambitious and intimate in scope. The film is a worthy choice to represent Canada in the Oscar race for Best International Feature, but in this year especially, it’s the right film to represent us on the world stage. Funny Boy is a warm embrace of a movie asks audiences to open their hearts when far too many minds are closed.
Funny Boy opens theatrically in Calgary and Edmonton on Nov. 27. It premieres on CBC and CBC Gem on Dec. 4. Read more about Funny Boy in this chat with Deepa Mehta for Complex.