Praised as a coming of age film, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, which released in Canada on November 27, 2020, is an adaptation of a 1994 novel written by renowned Sri Lankan Canadian author, Shyam Selvadurai.
The Canadian film has been well received and even selected out of 11 movies to represent the country for best international feature film at the Oscars in April next year. However, both Mehta and her film are under hot water as Funny Boy does not accurately depict the Sri Lankan Tamil community.
The film is set in Colombo, Sri Lanka during the early 1980’s, just as the nation is on the brink of a civil war.
During this time the Sinhalese majority Sri-Lankan government and the revolutionary group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were at odds. As a result, the Tamil community faced extreme acts of persecution and maltreatment resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Tamil people.
As the backdrop of the movie strives to shed light on the political terror arising in the country, the main character, a young Tamil boy named Arjie, explores his queer identity while also coming to understand the situation taking place around him.
His journey of discovery and acceptance leads up to the Black July riots that occured in 1983.
Black July is considered to be the month that begins Sri Lanka’s civil war, and during this month, Tamil minorities experienced dehumanizing acts of terror including being attacked, burned, and even killed by their oppressors, the Sinhalese people.
The ensuing civil war lasted almost three decades, ending in 2009 with the killing of LTTE’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was assassinated by the Sri Lankan government.
The film Funny Boy is thus in a very odd position, as it is perceived in mainstream media as a tool to educate viewers on the atrocities that the Tamil population faced, but it unfortunately manages to do the exact opposite.
Many have flocked to social media to share their outrage about the film, stating that it does not do justice to the Tamil population and further alienates their truth from mainstream society. Although this is a film about a Tamil boy and his family as they deal with the political upheaval in their country, the cast of the film itself does not include any actors of Tamil origin.
Mehta stated that she initially had more Tamil actors in mind, but due to various reasons including “family issues and visa problems,” she was forced to find a new cast.
Sinthujan Varatharajah, a native Eelam Tamil writer and researcher stated that, "There is an importance here not just in representing Tamil people properly but not substituting Tamil people with Sinhalese people."
After the film's release, it was criticized for its poor choice in cast as well as its poor rendition of the Tamil language spoken in the film.
This came as a surprise, as many felt that a film about the violence and oppression faced by the Tamil population would be sure to properly and respectfully portray Tamil culture on screen.
Unfortunately, Mehta was not able to achieve this in Funny Boy, and has coincidentally been working closely with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who is directly related to the oppression, disappearance, and murder of increasing numbers of Tamil people.
Set in the early 1980’s and based on a novel written in 1994, Funny Boy strives to shed light on the atrocities faced by the Tamil population in Sri Lanka but unfortunately causes more harm than good.
In mainstream media this film is thought of as juxtaposing the countries disheartening political state with the fragile reality that so many from the LGBTQ+ community face, especially in a country where homosexuality of any kind is punishable by law.
However, all it does is further undermine the voices of the Tamil community -- voices that are already rarely heard.
To learn more about why this film is problematic and why there is a movement to boycott it, head over to Sinthujan Varatharajah’s Instagram highlights @varathas.