'Funny Boy': Film Review

Funny Boy by Deepa Mehta
ARRAY Releasing
Human connection trumps the tragedy of history.

Canada’s Oscar entry for best international feature is a gay coming-of-ager set in the lead-up to the civil war in Sri Lanka, directed by Deepa Mehta ('Water').

If there is a moral in Deepa Mehta’s tale of gay teenage love, Funny Boy, it is how small individual drama looks when set against the bloodshed and injustice of history.

Based on Shyam Selvadurai’s well-known novel, the story centers around a large, wealthy, traditional Tamil family running an upscale resort in Sri Lanka. The older members fight a bitter battle against the younger generation’s push for sexual independence, particularly their younger son’s attraction to men, until they find themselves swept up in the historical disaster of the civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils. Vividly drawn characters portrayed by a lively, likable cast in a seductive tropical atmosphere make this a welcome return of Toronto-based Mehta to filming her native Indian subcontinent.

The Array Releasing-Netflix release will rep Canada in the best international feature category at the upcoming Academy Awards, an honor that the director’s film Water held in 2007. But most audiences will find Funny Boy closer in spirit to her 1996 Fire, an erotic romance between two women set against the closed minds and double standards of Indian society.

Here the storyline involving sexuality is not just that of the gay protag Arjie, but his free-spirited young aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) as well. Her arranged marriage to a stalwart suitor in Canada from her own upper class and ethnic Tamil background is threatened when she falls for a Sinhalese boy in her theater group. Granny (Seema Biswas) won’t have it, and in a funny-furious scene with the boy’s parents, the theme of ethnic tension is carefully broached. Within minutes, the conflict has escalated to a national scale and full-on bloodshed, and Radha barely escapes with her life.

Meanwhile, there's Arjie. He’s an 8-year-old (played by the excellent child actor Arush Nand) when he discovers the joy of dressing up with his cousins in a pretend marriage ceremony — as the bride. His father (Ali Kazmi) is horrified at his red lipstick and veil; his elegant, unflappable mom (Nimmi Harasgama) merely perturbed. Their reprimands, incomprehensible to the young boy, no doubt trigger years of repression.

We next find him as an awkward teenager (Brandon Ingram of The Day I Met Her) toeing an asexual line as he enters a snobbish English school for rich kids. Ingram brings the engaging stillness of a boy not yet in bloom, but whose virginity his good-looking seatmate Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake) promises to put to the test. The fact that the screenplay is set in the 1970s and '80s adds an oddly anachronistic touch to Western timelines about the sexual revolution. In fact, homosexuality is still today a criminal offense in Sri Lanka, and Arjie and Shehan’s not-so-secret trysts are a cause for uneasiness and a pervasive sense of danger.

Potentially, there’s a third forbidden love story hidden between the lines. Arjie’s attractive mother has a young relative, Jegan (Shivantha Wijesinha), whose parents are concerned about his ties to the Tamil Tigers, a militant guerrilla group fated to soon take a starring role in a bloody 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka. The magnetic lady gets her husband to offer him a job at the hotel and later confesses to the youth her admiration for the Tigers and, by extension, for himself.

The last half hour is spent anxiously waiting for all the heavily foreshadowed danger to come to a head, which it inevitably does in action scenes featuring an angry, violent mob. Like Arjie and Shehan’s gentlemanly affair, however, the story’s resolution feels a wee bit anti-climactic.

Amid the exquisite architecture and landscaping of Colombo, Sri Lanka, the standout set is Shehan’s family home, a crumbling, ornate manse fit for a prince of yore. Composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) uses a light touch to capture the atmosphere of a romantic lost time, with just a hint of epic detectable in the background.

Distributor: Array (available on Netflix Dec. 10)
Production companies: David Hamilton Productions with Telefilm Canada in association with CBC Films, Ontario Creates
Cast: Brandon Ingram, Nimmi Harasgama, Ali Kazmi, Agam Darshi, Rehan Mudannayake, Shivantha Wijesinha, Ruvin De Silva, Arush Nand, Hidaayath Hazeer, Seema Biswas
Director: Deepa Mehta
Screenwriters: Shyam Selvadurai, Deepa Mehta, based on Selvadurai’s novel
Producers: David Hamilton, Hussain Amarshi
Executive producers: David Hamilton, Hussain Amarshi, Arun K. Thapar
Director of photography: Douglas Koch
Editor: Teresa Font
Production designer: Errol Kelly
Costume designers: Rashmi Varma, Darshan Jalan
Music: Howard Shore
109 minutes