Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Review


Bittersweet: on Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy


 
by D’Lo




1.

When my sister friend and fellow actor Nimmi Harasgama told me she was auditioning for the role of Arjie’s mother in the adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (published in 1994), I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe the book I cherished was going to be made into a film, and not only that but a film that was going to be seen, because Deepa Mehta was going to direct it. Fire (1996), written and directed by Mehta, was the first South Asian lesbian movie I saw. Watching it made me realize there were other Brown gays in the world, even if they were movie characters. And way more importantly, it was the beginning of my mega crush on icon Shabana Azmi; I’ve always had a thing for aunties.


One of the most important books of my life was being made into a movie—know what a big deal that was? Let me fix up some Ceylonese tea for you. In the mid-1990s, I was a young stud/boi/in-the-life/gay-type Brown masc kid—we used “gay” as a catchall, much like “queer” is used today—kickin’ it with a crew of QTBIPOC folks from college in LA and the NYC arts community. I read gay-ass poetry from the greats: Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldúa, and other queer/feminist writers of color. One day a friend of a friend asked if I had read Funny Boy, partly because I was Sri Lankan, but mostly because I was so damn gay my sweat tasted like Skittles. I thought they were suggesting I read a bigoted Singhalese author. But they said it was about a Tamil gay. I thought they were ignorant. Hello?! When I told my amma, “I’m gay,” she said, “How? There are no gays in Sri Lanka.”


Jeezus Beezus,1 I almost couldn’t absorb how Selvadurai—who is both Tamil and Singhalese— wrote so beautifully, because he was writing about growing up in Sri Lanka, being “Tamil,” “gay,” about the “war,” and did I say “gay”?! This book resonated with every South Asian I know who read it. And every immigrant. And every gay kid who was dealing with their “secret.” Reading Funny Boy, I realized I was not the only Tamil Sri Lankan queer I knew anymore.



Reading Funny Boy, I realized I was not the only Tamil Sri Lankan queer I knew anymore.



2.

Funny Boy was the first book by a South Asian author I held in my hands, and that it was penned by a Tamil queer writer made my head spin. As a transgender Ilangkai Tamil-American, I never thought I’d see the day that a film on this book would get made—queerness is still taboo in many Tamil communities. Arjie’s storyline, intertwined with his amma’s, drew me in, anchoring the film in difficult questions of identity and belonging. Shout out to the incredibly talented actress Nimmi Harasgama who infused her character, Amma to Arjie, with such complexity and nuance.


All Tamils know too well how little attention has been paid to the acts of genocide against our people, as we’re still in limbo waiting for disappeared relatives and justice. This film will raise awareness of a war that many don’t know existed, ongoing violations against a besieged population, and the lives that have been forever changed.


I wrote and shared this with Deepa and her team when asked to provide not feedback but reflections and responses as part of a pre-screening process. While I didn’t lie, I lied in what I didn’t write.


3.

Like all good civil war stories, Sri Lanka’s started with the British. It’s page forty-seven in the colonizer’s playbook where we learn that preventing colonized people from revolting against you is best done through pitting them against each other. Anti-Tamil pogroms started before independence and kicked into high gear once independence was won in 1948.  

For over thirty years, the resulting war took the lives of 200,000 people, the majority of them Tamils. Though it “ended” in 2009, over 100,000 Tamil people have been “disappeared” by the government, and many remain in militarized detainee camps.2 We lack resources to address the psychological trauma of our people, and until very recently, Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse regime has snuck by the UN like a little kid, saying “I didn’t do it” in response to allegations of human rights violations, including abductions, sexual violence, massacres, and torture.3,4

As a teenager, I was schooled and mentored by feminists of color and communists, but I was first politicized through my appa, when I was a child. I grew up with an evolving awareness that we Tamils weren’t wanted on the island, just as much as white folks didn’t want us in America, just as the world doesn’t want queer people to exist.

Even with the immense privilege granted by my family’s pre-war migration, and of being American-born, it matters to me to be in deep and loving conversation and organizing spaces with my communities of Tamils, queer and otherwise, on the island and in the diaspora—just as I try to do with my BIPOC and queer communities. Like many in the diaspora, I am a politicized Ilangkai Tamil.

And yet, if I were given the opportunity to direct this film, I still wouldn’t assume that good intentions and filmmaking knowledge would be enough to make something that Tamil folks could be proud of, that they could own and claim as theirs in a world where there is little to claim for Ilangkai Tamils. I’d know that I’d need to do the work of listening and learning, especially because queer Tamil stories are rare.

 

But what do I tell folks? This movie made me feel erased.



4.

The film opens the same way the book does, with the memorable game of “bride-bride” between the siblings and cousins as young children. I loved it—it was sweet—but the misspoken Tamil and bad accents were jarring to get through. As I watched, I thought, It’s OK, D. We can’t always expect to see ourselves represented correctly. At least it’s Tamil they’re speaking. With my own receptive bilingualism in play, I was disappointed that barely any of the Tamil registered as a Colombo or even Jaffna Tamil dialect.

Throughout the film, seeing Nimmi on screen filled me with so much joy. Not only was she bravely representing us, but she was doing a damn good job at it! Nimmi is one of the most versatile actors I know, and the depth she went to in this role of Amma was enchanting to watch as a fellow actor. I was puffed up with pride. It was really Amma’s character arc I was most invested in because of her inner conflict, her wanting to love her son more than she wants to judge him, wanting to stand up for Jegan more than she wants to keep up with the expectations of being a high-society woman. All the while she knows that her Tamil-ness, and her son’s queerness, keeps her on a thin rope in Sri Lankan society. Watching her contend with her position as a mother and Tamil woman was what made the film gel for me. I can only imagine what magic Nimmi would’ve been able to do if the omitted parts of the book made it into the film.

Still, the scenes leading to the re-enactment of Black July were painful, and I started crying unexpectedly. These are the stories of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the organized targeting of Tamil people and property—looting their homes, chasing them in the streets and on trains, setting Tamils on fire. Even if one didn’t personally experience this, this devastation is engraved in all Ilangkai Tamils’ minds and hearts because of the sheer amount of stories we have heard, and the trauma that is still unhealed. I applaud the film for not shying away from these events.

When the credits rolled, I was surprised to see that the main characters were played by actors who were not Ilangkai Tamil; in fact the majority were played by Singhalese actors. While I have heard Mehta boast that 50% of the side and background actors were Tamil, Nimmi—who is Singhalese and Tamil—was the only Ilangkai Tamil playing one of the main characters.

After the movie, I was finished. I felt a range of emotions. I was happy a film was finally highlighting the violent and destructive Singhalese nationalism that Tamil people have had to endure and fight against. I felt joy that my talented friend Nimmi did incredibly well, and this role could help her career. But what do I tell folks? This movie made me feel erased.

I still felt thoroughly puzzled: why were Tamils erased from a movie that was supposed to have spotlighted us?


5.

I’m writing this now because I am learning how to center my own complicated and complex emotions and thoughts, how to avoid letting fear take over and silence me.  

Once the trailer was released, with its inaccurate Colombo and Jaffna English accents and Tamil, the backlash from mostly Tamil communities started. The Tamil dialect issue was brought to Mehta before the movie’s Netflix release in December 2020. I heard through friends that Mehta initially pushed back on this critique—she’d had a dialect coach involved. But dialect coaching is not a short process; it takes months, and sometimes years, to master.

Thankfully, after more pushback against the questionable spoken Tamil, Mehta went on to “dub” the movie to improve the pronunciation and spoken Tamil, as well as the English with a Colombo accent, though reportedly the dubbing process had its issues.5 The version that went to Netflix is the dubbed version, and while it is an improvement, I believe the movie was recut to accommodate the dub.

But aside from the Tamil dialect issues, and amid the backdrop of so many Tamil people eagerly awaiting this movie’s release, I still felt thoroughly puzzled: why were Tamils erased from a movie that was supposed to have spotlighted us, only to be replaced by mostly Indians, or Singhalese actors—the very communities who have caused so much harm to us throughout the war?

I have heard Mehta make both plausible statements and questionable excuses about how this film was made. In one article, she is quoted saying, “There is no point casting someone politically correct who can’t act.”6 I’ve also heard her say that it was more important for her that Arjie was played by a gay person than a Tamil person. Selvadurai has concurred.7 In various interviews, Mehta shared that she tried to cast a Tamil actor for the role, but the actors she found either had schedule conflicts or weren’t comfortable playing a gay person. I know many gay Ilangkai Tamil actors who never even heard about a casting call for Funny Boy. The net could’ve been thrown out wider.


6.

I know that women-of-color directors are rare. I also know that films are hard to get produced, and that once you’re shooting, it is a race against the clock. I do believe that Mehta really thought she was doing the best thing for Tamil people—taking her standing as a Canada-backed filmmaker to do another Canadian artist justice by having his beloved book turned into a film. She probably knew that no one else would be bold enough to even touch a book about Sri Lanka, and that she should because she could.  

I have respect for the artist she is, but I wonder how her process for casting and dialect direction in Funny Boy is any different from that of a white director who thinks their good intentions are all that is needed to make a meaningful film. I know she’s had her struggles, as the majority of BIPOC artists in the industry have, but I have a deeper desire for all of us film directors and creators to do better by the communities we are being called to represent, and the stories and nuances therein they’re seeking to shed light on. Can we humbly be in dialogue around these painful subjects—where there is vulnerability from all sides, and space for us all to be moving forward? It is only through these relationships that our art gets stronger and our communities grow stronger.

Had I been the director, I would’ve cultivated raw talent over a weathered actor, so the character would be played by someone from that marginalized group. And just as I would never cast a cis person to play a trans role, I would also never cast an Israeli to play a Palestinian.

I would have engaged in community story circles way earlier, like we do in community-based theater, like we do in writers’ rooms with trusted collaborators. I would’ve made sure that while Selvadurai and his book were uplifted, we were also doing right by a larger community of Tamil people and queer people who could’ve, should’ve, been able to be prouder of this film adaptation.

I want this filmmaking story to become an example for filmmakers, especially filmmakers of color: representation matters, from the actors playing each role, to the way they speak their lines. I’m not saying that our art needs to be a direct response to injustice, but we should aim to not create more injustice.

~


D’Lo (dlocokid.com) is a queer/transgender Tamil-Sri Lankan-American actor/writer/comic. His acting credits include Looking, Transparent, Sense 8, and Mr. Robot, and his standup and solo shows have toured internationally. His work has also been published in academic journals, literary anthologies, and print/online journalism sources, such as The Guardian, NBC, CNN, and The Advocate. He is currently a Civic Media Fellow through USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab.


~


FOOTNOTES

1. Prior to this moment, I only read poetry or books assigned at school, though I repeatedly read Ramona Quimby books.

2. UN Report, “Sri Lanka on alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations,” January 27, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26695.

3. On March 23, 2021, the UN Resolution on Human Rights in Sri Lanka adopted Resolution 46/1, which “establishes a powerful new accountability process to collect, analyze, and preserve evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions.” The resolution was strongly opposed by the Sri Lankan government, and activists have reported increased threats and harassment from the government in recent months. See: “Sri Lanka: Landmark UN Resolution Promotes Justice,” Human Rights Watch, March 25, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/25/sri-lanka-landmark-un-resolution-promotes-justice#.

4. “Sri Lanka: Fulfil the demands of the families of the disappeared,” Amnesty International, February 14, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/sldisappearedfeb142020/.

5. Sharanya Manivannan, “‘Funny Boy’ and the Indian Tamil Gaze on Ilankai Tamils,” Medium, Nov 15, 2020, https://medium.com/@sharanya.manivannan/funny-boy-and-the-indian-tamil-gaze-on-ilankai-tamils-2bf1f18e66a4. 

6. Anindita Ghose, “‘No point casting someone politically correct who can’t act’: Deepa Mehta,” Mint Lounge, May 12, 2020, https://lifestyle.livemint.com/how-to-lounge/movies-tv/-no-point-casting-someone-politically-correct-who-can-t-act-deepa-mehta-111607155728343.html. 

7. Jackson Weaver, “Why representation in Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy has some in the Tamil community upset,” CBC News, November 17, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/funny-boy-tamil-representation-1.5804302.