Funny Boy watches Sri Lanka’s battle lines from the social uplands

Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel depicting Sinhalese-Tamil tensions in Sri Lanka is a typically elegant and powerful portrait of social divisions from the director of the Elements trilogy (though Tamil speakers will bemoan the current dub).

Funny Boy (2020)

▶︎ Funny Boy is on Netflix.

The conflict in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils lasted 26 long years and concluded in 2009, leaving deep scars on both sides. It is a hugely emotive subject, especially when coupled with the topic of homosexuality, still considered taboo in most of South Asia. Shyam Selvadurai’s elegant 1994 novel, on which Funny Boy is based, dealt with both subjects in a sensitive fashion.

IndoCanadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, no stranger to emotive, taboo subjects, is best known for her Elements trilogy: Fire (1996) dealt with a lesbian relationship between sisters-in-law in a middle class home in Delhi. Earth (1998) looked at the partition of the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan through the eyes of a young girl from the Parsi Zoroastrian community, while the Oscar-nominated Water (2005) examined the lot of widows in 1940s India.

In Mehta’s hands, based on a screenplay adapted by Selvadurai and herself, Funny Boy is as elegant and sensitive as the novel upon which it is based. Aided by Douglas Koch’s vivid cinematography and Howard Shore’s sweeping score, Mehta begins by portraying Sri Lanka as a lush, tropical paradise island, complete with pristine beaches, verdant foliage, quaint railways and imposing colonial bungalows. At the centre of it all is the Chelvaratnam family, presided over by the conservative matriarch Ammachi; her son, who owns a resort; his wife, their children and her free-spirited daughter Radha.

Funny Boy (2020)

The first hint of trouble in paradise arises when the film’s protagonist, the young boy Arjie, chooses to dress up as a girl rather than engage in a game of cricket. Underlying tensions bubble to the surface when Radha, who is engaged to a man in Canada, strikes up a romantic relationship with Anil Jaisinghe, a young man from the Sinhala community. An incandescent Ammachi confronts Anil’s father and asks him to keep his son away from her daughter. Anil’s father sneers at her and describes the Tamil community as a “minority with a majority complex, thinking they can have half our island”.

And that is where the battle lines that inform the rest of the narrative are drawn. For Arjie, once he reaches his teens, the situation is doubly complex, as he is not only a minority Tamil but also dealing with his burgeoning homosexuality, drawn as he is to a Sri Lankan man.

Funny Boy (2020)

Unlike Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan (2015), which looks at the Sri Lankan conflict and its aftermath from the point of view of a Tamil man who used to be a militant, Funny Boy explores the conflict largely through the prism of the moneyed class; when the film does, from time to time, touch upon those less financially fortunate, it serves as a powerful reality jolt. Mehta stays at a remove from the conflict, choosing to dwell on the futility of violence rather than the causes of it, making for an affecting narrative.

Funny Boy is a film bursting with powerful performances, particularly Agam Darshi as Radha, Nimmi Harasgama as Arjie’s mother, who is sympathetic to the Tamil cause, and Arush Nand and Brandon Ingram as the young and old Arjie respectively.

However, in concentrating on performances, Mehta abandons any semblance of accurate Tamil-language diction during the film’s Tamil dialogue segments, and the language is mangled in a variety of ways. While this will not be an issue for those relying on subtitles, for those who know the language it will be a major one, detracting from what is otherwise a fine piece of work – though a Tamil language redub is understood to be in the works.