'Funny Boy' Tells The Story Of A Young Gay Man's Coming Of Age In Sri Lanka Deepa Mehta's new film, Funny Boy, is Canada's Oscar submission. It's being distributed by Ava DuVernay's company and premieres on Netflix. It's based on the novel by Shyam Selvadurai.

In 'Funny Boy,' A Young Sri Lankan Gay Man Comes Of Age As Ethnic Tensions Explode

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Canada's entry in this year's Oscars is a gay coming-of-age story set during the Sri Lankan civil war. It's called "Funny Boy," and it's the second time Indian-born director Deepa Mehta has represented her adopted country at the Oscars. Mehta is known for films that explore what it means to be an outsider and, as Bilal Qureshi reports, for films that often ignite controversy.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "Funny Boy" opens in a tropical jungle by the sea, as a group of kids run across the screen on their way to a make-believe wedding. Queer film scholar B. Ruby Rich sets the scene.

B RUBY RICH: You don't realize it at first. You see all of these kids playing, and they're mostly girls. And then you slowly realize that the one dressed up as the bride in the red lipstick is actually a boy.

QURESHI: During the vows, his cousin snatches our central character, Arjie's, veil.


THENAYA SENARIE GEEGANAGE: (As Tanuja) A boy cannot be a bride. A girl must be the bride.

RICH: So there's a lesson going on there for us as an audience. We're being schooled in what the parameters of this society are going to be.


ARUSH NAND: (As Arjie) Why does everyone say I'm funny? What does that mean?

RICH: This is not a coming out story. This boy is queer from the first time we see him, and everyone knows it. So it's not that this boy has to come out, they're trying to make him go in.

QURESHI: Before it was a film, "Funny Boy" was a novel by the Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. He moved to Toronto with his family as a refugee in 1983, fleeing from the Sri Lankan civil war. As he began his career, Selvadurai says he found no queer novels about South Asians. So he wrote one.

SHYAM SELVADURAI: Our story needed to be told. And I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to give a young Sri Lankan or South Asian queer writer a book where they could see themselves?

DEEPA MEHTA: I read the novel 24 years ago. And it really touched me, being an immigrant myself from India to Canada.

QURESHI: Filmmaker Deepa Mehta says she read "Funny Boy" around the same time she released her breakthrough film, "Fire." It was the story of two Delhi housewives who fall in love and defy a woman's place in Indian society. The film's subject ignited riots.

MEHTA: I was shocked that movie halls got burned in India. And the government said there are no lesbians in India. So it's what is expected of women or what is expected of men, what is expected of us as human beings. Why can't we be what we want to be?

QURESHI: "Fire" established Mehta as a brave new voice in world cinema. And Shyam Selvadurai says he knew she would do justice to his story.

SELVADURAI: I mean, I gave Deepa the rights to the book for a dollar.

QURESHI: Selvadurai and Mehta co-wrote the screenplay a (ph) "Funny Boy," which sets Arjie's coming-of-age story against the reality of what happened in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and '80s, as ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority exploded into full-blown conflict; a war that lasted for more than two decades and displaced generations.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As news reporter) The Tamil Tigers took over the Kandivali Railway Station and set fire to a train.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're a traitor, a traitor to our father's memory. He was butchered by the Sinhalese (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You Tamils have been whining (ph) here for the last 15 years. We don't want you here anymore.


QURESHI: In the midst of all this, Arjie, who is Tamil, falls in love with a Sinhalese young man, as critic B. Ruby Rich explains.

RICH: This is not just a forbidden queer love story, it's also kind of a forbidden "Romeo And Juliet" story or "West Side Story." And the fact that she is able to create this joy between them at a time when the country is disappearing into violence and into civil war is quite remarkable.

QURESHI: Shooting on location in Sri Lanka was also a remarkable achievement in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

MEHTA: It's not an achievement, Bilal. It's a miracle.

SELVADURAI: Everything was miraculous about it. And each step felt like it was a battle, but also a triumph for us.

QURESHI: The movie's distribution on Netflix was also a triumph for the filmmakers. But since the film's trailer appeared online, some in the Tamil diaspora have attacked Mehta for casting non-Tamil actors in major roles and for dialogue delivered with audibly foreign accents. The social media debate has grown more messy and personal.

MEHTA: Hatred and history seem to be married together. And we tend to repeat ourselves. But have I made the perfect film about the pain? Do I understand the pain? I did it because I do feel that a conversation is essential to have. Let them see the film, let the dialogue or the healing begin if they wish it.

QURESHI: Shyam Selvadurai says the debate misses the intention of the project. He says writing and sharing Arjie's story helped him heal from the wounds he carried to Canada as a refugee.

SELVADURAI: For my generation and for my parents' generation, it's very hard to talk about trauma. I'll give you my own example. I wrote this book in 1994. I met my partner in 1994. This isn't strictly my story, but I never told him what happened to me. I just wanted the book to be kind of a representation. I think I told him in 2009, maybe, what exactly happened. And I still don't talk about it in public because I really can't. You know, the beginning of talking about trauma is the story, is telling the story in a way. And I really hope that the film opens up the story for our community.

QURESHI: Selvadurai says he also hopes the film opens the story of Sri Lanka to audiences beyond that community so they, too, can see what it means to love across lines and to heal.

For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi.


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