Deepa Mehta’s coming-of-age tale of a gay Tamil boy growing up in 1970s Sri Lanka, and in the post-1983 civil war between the country’s Tamil minority and ruling Sinhalese majority, is an ambitious one, aiming to wrangle with some heavy politicised themes.
It opens with a group of children from wealthy families playing happily, amongst them an eight year old Arjie playing dress-up as a bride with makeup.
The tense family dynamic is established instantly by Arjie’s father’s disapproval of Arjie. He warns his wife against encouraging this “nonsense”. He is set up as the oppressive patriarchal figure, seeking to stamp out any queer or feminine proclivities in his son. At the father’s behest, Arjie’s mother steers him towards masculine hobbies like cricket.
Arjie finds an ally in his aunt Radha, a free-spirited and liberal young woman who has returned from college in Toronto. She is betrothed to a Canadian Tamil in an arranged marriage, one that she is visibly unhappy with. Now ethnic divisions are introduced — Arjie’s grandmother explains to Arjie that Radha’s fiancé is Tamil, “like us”.
Radha encourages Arjie’s creativity, bringing him to audition for an amateur musical with her. But she is set up as somewhat a caricature character, recounting tales of drinking in bars with her gay friends and sassily scolding an admirer that she’s “not the traditional type”. She begins to fall for a Sinhalese man, and we are treated to some more melodramatic conflict between their families.
A sudden and unexpected violent event which leaves Radha injured drives home the danger and fear of terrorism.
The soap-style writing is continued to cartoonish effect when the narrative jumps to a teenage Arjie, with corridor bullying straight out of the corniest high school drama. His burgeoning romance with a Sinhalese boy starts promisingly, but doesn’t develop into anything more than stilted dialogue and heavy-handed queer signifiers — singing “Smalltown Boy” and idolising Annie Lennox posters.
Tensions arise when Arjie’s father takes in family friend Jegan, an ex-Tamil Tiger with whom Arjie’s mother inexplicably begins to become more politically aligned, in a rather shoehorned attempt at creating conflict.
The film does well in touching on wealth inequality, demonstrating how the family is at first protected from harm because of their class. A local Tamil butcher urges Arjie’s grandmother to speak in Sinhalese to him, telling him she’s rich and will be fine, but he is poor and stuck here. In a later scene, Arjie’s mother is able to skip to the front of the line at a prison, bribing the officers so she can visit Jegan.
It’s a shame that this class commentary is told with the poor characters as mere dishevelled set-pieces whilst the narrative focuses on telling the story of the rich family. (To be fair to Mehta, she is restricted here by the source material).
Funny Boy fails to interweave the interpersonal story with the political backdrop story. The scene-by-scene transitions are disjointed and tonally confusing, not helped by some oddly jarring shot choices. Instead, it feels as if they are told side-by-side, with no room to breathe or be explored. Arjie’s romance feels rushed, and the climax of violence at the film’s close almost appears out of nowhere.
The film has drawn strong criticism from Tamil audiences for casting no Tamils. The director has replied that the original Tamil cast had to be dropped from the project due to visa complications and a fear of the gay subject matter. Tamil language sections were redubbed, though into Indian Tamil and not Sri Lankan Tamil.
Despite the real difficulties, the optics of telling a Tamil story which deals with the erasure and oppression of Tamil identity whilst effectively erasing Tamil representation and language cannot be ignored. It’s not surprising the film is being accused of hypocrisy.
The story has potential and high aims, but the soapy dialogue and hammy delivery detract. It is also difficult to truly invest in the characters when their relationships are barely developed — the only hint we get of a character arc is Arjie’s bullying older brother displaying a hint of reluctance and a crisis of conscience later in the film.
We see a backdrop of violence and bombings, but without context or framing for the audience. The film appears to deliver only a bland liberal message: “war is bad, why are people fighting, we are all the same”, or just “it’s sad that people are killing each other over ethnicity”.
Funny Boy perhaps fails in setting its goal too high, attempting to condense too many complex issues into one film, and almost trivialising by clumsy writing that spoon-feeds emotion.