Funny Boy

 

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Popular appeal is applied successfully to serious issues in this wide-ranging family tale.

 
Funny Boy
 

Deepa Mehta comes from India but has spent the greater part of her life in Canada. It may therefore seem odd that her latest work tells a story of life in Sri Lanka and was filmed on location in that country. In truth, though, it is not at all surprising that she should have chosen this tale because the themes in it are very much in line with her previous movies, not least the Indian trilogy of Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). Mehta has always been keen to celebrate difference and diversity and to promote liberal views particularly when it comes to women facing social restrictions. Undoubtedly she also laments wide-scale conflicts just as strongly (Earth touched on Partition in 1947 while this new work, Funny Boy, is centred on a wealthy Tamil family starting in 1974 but then jumping ahead to the 1980s when the violent oppression of Tamils by the Sinhalese reached a peak).

 

Whatever their specific setting such themes can always be seen as universal in their implications and that is a point that Mehta herself has stressed when talking about her aims in making this film, one based on a novel by Shyam Selvadurai (he himself also lives in Canada but was writing about his own country). In passing it is intriguing to remember now that it was Sri Lanka that Mehta used to stand in for India when hostility in that country prevented her from shooting Water in its true setting. That film took us into its world through the eyes of a child and Funny Boy does the same when it introduces us to 8-year-old Arjie (Arush Nand) and then shows us his strict parents, Chelva (Ali Kazmi) and Nalini (Nimmi Harasgama), and an aunt, Radha (Agam Darshi), whose affectionate manner and liberal outlook create a closeness between her and the boy.

 

The themes that I have indicated play out in various forms in the course of this film. One example finds Radha being forced into an arranged marriage despite falling in love with another man (Ruvin De Silva) who is in any case regarded as unsuitable for her because she is Tamil and he is Sinhalese. That national conflict will burst out into violence in the streets at the film's climax but will also again prove relevant in a personal way. Arjie is gay and as a young man (Brandon Ingham) he will fall in love with Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake). With gay men having to hide their sexuality and with Arjie's father being strongly homophobic, their relationship would in any case be challenging, but on top of that there is the fact that Shehan too is Sinhalese. Another aspect of these racial divides is also reflected in the tale: Chelva as an established Tamil businessman is openly hostile to a young man in his employment (Shivantha Wijesinha) who supports the Tamil Tigers in their quest for independence and whose stance will unexpectedly draw him and Nalini together.

 

The fact that this film blends snatches of English with dialogue requiring subtitles reminds one of certain works by the great Satyajit Ray, but Funny Boy does not seek to work in his mode. That is to say that Mehta while being serious in her themes yet chooses to express them in a tone that echoes the trappings of popular literature. In keeping with that we have pretty location pictures and the sometime unsubtle narrative is akin to what can often be found in novels that are best sellers. But, that said, it is important to stress that once you accept the level on which the film functions it works well. All of the players deliver fine performances, the production values are good and as a work totally in line with Deepa Mehta's own beliefs it carries its own sense of authenticity.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ali Kazmi, Nimmi Harasgama, Brandon Ingram, Arush Nand, Seema Biswas, Agam Darshi, Rehan Mudannayake, Ruvin De Silva, Shivantha Wijesinha, Hidaayath Hazeer, Avlok Wignaraja.

 

Dir Deepa Mehta, Pro David Hamilton and Hussain Amarchi, Screenplay Shyam Selvadurai and Deepa Mehta, from the novel by Shyam Selvadurai, Ph Douglas Koch, Pro Des Errol Kelly, Ed Teresa Font, Music Howard Shore, Costumes Darshan Jalan.

 

ARRAY Releasing/Telefilm Canada/CBC Films/Hamilton-Mehta Productions/Summer Wine-Array.
109 mins. Canada/USA. 2020. Rel: 10 December 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.