Deepa Mehta believes Funny Boy could serve hope in a world full of divides. The Delhi-raised, Toronto-based film-maker’s latest film—based on a 1994 novel by the Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai—is both a coming of age story and a gay love story set against the backdrop of Black July, a 1983 pogrom that killed and displaced thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils and fuelled a civil war.
Arjie, the protagonist, is Tamil. He is in love with a Sinhala boy. While his privileged family has a harder time accepting his queerness, the conceit of the film’s Tamil-Sinhala love stories (there are more than one) is particularly striking in a year when “love jihad” is an unfortunate catchphrase in India, with Uttar Pradesh becoming the first state to come out with an ordinance to penalise “unlawful” religious conversions. Four other states are considering legislation.
Funny Boy released on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on 4 December. It is set to have its Indian premiere as the opening night film for the I View World Human Rights Film Festival at the DLF CyberHub in Gurugram, Haryana, on 10 December, and will drop on Netflix internationally the same day.
But eclipsing news of the film’s acquisition by film-maker Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY is a controversy about Mehta’s casting choices. Some groups from the Tamil diaspora have taken umbrage to a Burgher actor (Brandon Ingram) being cast as the Tamil protagonist, as well as the Tamil diction of the actors. Ahead of the film’s release, over a Zoom call from Toronto, Mehta spoke about her process of adapting from word to screen, the problem with tokenism, and the desi TV shows that have surprised her. Edited excerpts:
You have worked on several book-to-film adaptations, ‘Earth’, ‘Midnight’s Children’, ‘Funny Boy’—what makes you see cinematic potential in a book?
All three have something in common: They are from the point of view of a child. Children can be so bright and observant. That’s what I loved about Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, which became Earth: Lenny’s perspective on how the world is falling apart around her and how it affects her family, neighbourhood, country. It was the same with Saleem and Shiva in Midnight’s Children. When I read Funny Boy, I was interested in the exploration of what it means to be different. Whether it’s class, sexuality or race, the innocent pay a price for being different.
Sometimes, it’s a sentence from a book. There was a line Bapsi had written on the back of the book: “All wars are fought on women’s bodies.” Just that line made me want to immediately engage with it.
You co-wrote the screenplay for 'Midnight’s Children’ with Salman Rushdie and now ‘Funny Boy’ with Selvadurai. Negotiating control with writers can be tricky. What do you gain and lose by involving the novelists?
When I had asked Salman about writing the screenplay, he had said “absolutely not”. But it’s such an iconic book that his involvement was important. As an exercise I suggested we both go home and write how we envision the film. He was amused. We ended up agreeing on 90% of it. So we decided to write it together.
With Funny Boy, it’s semi-autobiographic, the writer is alive and well. So what you choose to subtract from the book while adapting to film, you are also subtracting from life. That is complicated. When Shyam gave me his first draft, it was 250 pages long. I had to figure how to keep Shyam’s voice and yet make it my own.
In a CBC video on the casting controversy, you explain the difference between representation and tokenism, and why you wouldn’t cast a role a certain way just to virtue-signal. As a director, what is your stance on casting? What is essential?
Talent is most essential…can an actor bring something to the character that I haven’t seen? I love it when actors surprise me. And that has a lot to do with what the character evokes in them. There is no point casting someone politically correct who can’t act.
The best thing I can do as a director is to be as genuine as possible. For Water, we were looking for a young widow between age five and 10. We auditioned in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh. But when the filming moved to Sri Lanka, we had to cast all over again. We found a nine-year-old Sinhalese girl who didn’t speak a word of Hindi. I told her through an interpreter, your father has left you, what will you do? She fell to the floor and held her father’s leg and wouldn’t let go. I had to cast her.
While casting Arjie in Funny Boy, it was important to me that the actor was gay. In Sri Lanka, where being queer still bears a criminal charge, casting an openly gay Sri Lankan was most important. Arjie’s coming out had to be visceral, it had to go beyond acting. I wish we could have found the right Tamil actor but unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
Tell me about Brandon Ingram’s audition for Arjie.
I don’t audition with actors reading out lines. We were talking, there were no cameras. There’s a deep silence within him. He talked to me about the time he came out to his mother, a singer who raised him as a single parent. He told me how embracing she was about his sexuality and that touched a chord with me.
‘Funny Boy’ is a love story set against the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. What resonance do you see with the India of today, when “love jihad” is a subject of national discussion?
All I know is that the sense of outrage about anything has become so extreme that before you know it, everything gets derailed. I sense that outrage as a film-maker, writer, human being, mother. So what I am saying is, it’s more than “love jihad”… outrage is happening across the board. Soon we won’t be able to tell any stories because of outrage.
For me, the film is really about how we are pressing our freedom to be who we are or what our potential is as people. Funny Boy is not just a gay Romeo-Juliet.
Following the outrage about the actors’ Tamil diction, the buzz is that the voices were re-recorded. Are you happy with the final result?
I want to set the record straight on this. We finished shooting in January 2020. Everything was on guide tracks because we shoot on location and it’s all very noisy. The plan was to get the dialogues done right after. We had Indian and Pakistani actors and their Tamil is dodgy. I got a Tamil voice coach from Sri Lanka but then we went under lockdown. So the first dub happened with Ali (Kazmi) in Pakistan, Seema Biswas in Bombay and Brandon in Vancouver recording their dialogues without coaching on cellphones. It has been redone now. People are upset without even seeing the film.
But you did meet with the Canadian Tamil Congress to assuage their doubts. Do you believe it’s an artist’s role to be answerable to such bodies?
It’s the responsibility of an artist to be responsible for the work they do. I feel it’s my duty to hear people out. It’s also my duty to ensure that the vision I have is in no way compromised. If the masses are upset, I will listen to them. But if I carry out changes that I don’t believe in, then I will be compromising on my work.
Is there more interference in your work because you are not local?
As a foreign film-maker, I have to wait for the local government’s approval on the script. It took us one year to start Funny Boy the way we wanted to. It took me five years to remake Water after filming in Benares was stopped. It has happened to me time and again. Even after the script is approved, governments send a representative to ensure that the production is true to the script. What’s strange about the delays with filming Funny Boy is that it is a popular and beloved book in Sri Lanka that has been out for 24 years. It has been translated into both Tamil and Sinhala and is taught at Colombo University, so it was a shock to us when they said this is acceptable, this is not.
What are you reading/watching now?
For the last couple of months, I have read a lot, especially non-fiction. I read Arundhati Roy’s Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. I also read The Other by Ryszard Kapuściński. And my first fiction books in a long time: Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar and (Madhuri Vijay’s) The Far Field.
I am enjoying desi OTT shows: Mirzapur, Paatal Lok. In desi movies, Mulk, Article 15…. They have surprised me and made me feel hopeful.
If you could have a conversation with anyone now, who would it be?
I am very intrigued by Avni Doshi. The constant search of who we are as women fascinates me. Even in Funny Boy, one of the interesting tracks for me was the growing awareness of a housewife (Arjie’s mother) and her increasing interest in politics. I added that in. That’s the liberty one takes as a film-maker adapting a book.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.