8 May, 2021

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The Funny Film: A Call To Boycott

By Chamindra Weerawardhana –

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

It was undoubtedly the most frustrating cinematic experience ever. I watched Funny Boy by D. Mehta [DM] on CBC Gem, during the weekend of 5th November 2020. It is indeed a ‘funny’ film, which does a great deal of injustice to a Lankan Tamil queer boy’s coming-of-age story. Funny Boy is a novel authored by a cis gay Tamil man, S. Selvadurai, who is a member of the global Tamil diaspora, or to be precise, the Lankan Tamil diaspora of the territories of Turtle Island we know as Canada. It is definitely a beautifully written book. 

Growing up in socially conservative Sri Lanka in the 1990s, this writer used to love how the mere mention of the book would annoy closeted LGB people, as well as homophobic and anti-Tamil reactionaries. The novel Funny Boy, we can clearly establish, is a classic. It has a definitive place in the annals of literature in English, in Sri Lanka, Turtle Island as well as elsewhere. 

This is a story that revolves around a 15-year-old Tamil cis boy growing up in Colombo of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A cinematic creation based on such a story imperatively requires a  strong focus on research on the horrific incidents that took place in July 1983, the political developments in Sri Lanka, especially of the 1970s, and under the first few years of the Jayewardene administration in the early 1980s. 

The film ‘Funny Boy’ by DM, it appears, has failed to provide adequate attention to these realities. The final product very much resembles an act of cinematic sleepwalking and knocking oneself right against a wall. Many Illankai Tamils in Sri Lanka and the worldwide Tamil diaspora have clearly stated why this film is an offensive atrocity that only deserves boycotting and condemnation. In what follows, this writer will seek to highlight a few perspectives on why this film is deeply problematic, from a Sinhalese, if not Sinhala-Buddhist, perspective. 

The Casting Quagmire 

The casting is obviously very offensive to the entire Tamil populace of Sri Lanka, and to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not a single native-Tamil-speaking actor has been selected to play the key roles. To play the character of Arjun, the 15-year-old protagonist, how on earth could one justify the choice of a thirty-something non-Tamil and non-Tamil speaker? To add further insult to injury, the actor chosen for the protagonist also happens to be a cis gay person of Eurasian descent!

In her media engagements, DM repeatedly reiterates how hard she tried to ensure a Tamil cast, and Failed. To the discerning observer, this very much sounds like a futile damage control effort. 

DM claims that no Tamil person in Sri Lanka would accept to act in a movie of this nature, especially because of its thematic of non-heteronormativity! This again is the most ludicrous claim. Why were Tamil queer Sri Lankans not adequately consulted? Sri Lanka is home to many LGBTQI+ activist collectives, some of them founded and led by, and/or, with a strong concentration of, Tamil queer Sri Lankans. Given the connections of this story to the worldwide Illankai Tamil diaspora, why were Illankai/Eezham Tamil diaspora artists, especially queer artists, not adequately consulted? Why was it not clearly established that Illankai Tamils will play the lead roles? In her recent media engagements, DM says that her priority was to find people who could ‘act’. This is an incredibly condescending claim that runs against the grain of something that is highly prioritised and appreciated in present-day artistic creations – ‘representation’. 

As many observers have highlighted, the choice of the core cast is beyond belief. Who on earth would consider a Pakistani actor to play the role of a Lankan Tamil appa? Or a non-native Tamil speaker to play the role of a Tamil amma in Colombo? DM and her team’s desperate use of the Sinhala-Tamil family background of the actress who plays Arjie’s mother is also extremely problematic. It is, as many Tamil analysts have rightly highlighted, a blatant act of entitled gaslighting.

Most importantly, when one reads through narratives of people who were invited to come on board in relation to certain aspects of the film, and when one takes a good look at the cast, and the networks of some of the actors, especially those who are Sri Lankan, one thing becomes quite clear: that DM had not bothered to gauge the extent of the task at hand, and launch an essential initiative – a process of open-casting. Instead, it very much looks like ‘networks’, and ‘personal connections’ have been prioritised in identifying potential cast members. Hanging around in English-speaking theatrical circles in Colombo, for example, is by no means sufficient when it comes to the daunting task of casting for a cinematic venture of this nature. 

Representation really matters. Hence the necessity of high-quality, intersectionally-informed and sensible representation. In sum, it is not unfair to establish that DM and her team had not bothered to look hard enough, for Lankan Tamil talent, for a film about Lankan Tamils. 

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A Tale of ‘Intersectional Bankruptcy’: Gayness against Tamilness? 

Most pathetically, DM seeks to take credit for casting a cis gay non-Tamil Eurasian man in his thirties for the role of a 15-year-old queer Tamil boy. Her argument is that she prioritised casting a gay man for the character of the protagonist, irrespective of the actor’s ethnicity! This is beyond shameless, and is a perfect example of what I may call the filmmaker’s ‘intersectional bankruptcy’. She does not even seem to be capable of beginning to grasp the deeply problematic nature of a) her choice and b) her case to justify that choice. To her, respecting the intersections of being Tamil and queer appears to have been of lesser importance than casting a non-Tamil, Eurasian, thirty-something cis gay man for the role of an adolescent Tamil queer boy, in a coming-of-age story! How can the protagonist’s sexual orientation prime over his ethnicity? How on earth can one justify the choice of a thirty-something Eurasian to play a 15-year-old non-heteronormative Tamil boy??? 

This kind of casting is NOT representation. This is equivalent to a white settler actor/actress being given the lead role of an indigenous character, in a film set in Turtle Island. DM’s choice is equivalent to a queer Pākehā New Zealander being asked to play a role of a Maōri Takatāpui character whose first language is Te Reo Maōri, in a film set in Aotearoa. This choice is equivalent to the tendency among many cis-het and intersectionally bankrupt filmmakers to cast cis people to play trans characters. These are all prejudiced, poor, deeply problematic and offensive choices of casting. 

Butchering a Beautiful Language 

The way in which core cast members speak Tamil is excruciatingly disturbing, to say the very least. While the deeply problematic language politics of this film have been subjected to strong, logical and thought-provoking critiques, suffice to note here that DM and her team have caused the ultimate insult to an ancient, rich, poetic and beautiful language – yet another abject affront to the Illankai Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and abroad. If DM and her team had the slightest idea of how complex and deeply ingrained ‘language politics’ are in the Lankan context, and what linguistic discrimination means to Lankan Tamils, they would never have opted to lead their viewers down such a shameless garden path. 

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The language spoken by the film’s key cast, is a new linguistic concoction altogether. It certainly does not sound anything like Tamil. One hears none of the Illankai Tamil accents. Telefilm Canada should take serious note of the fact that if this film deserves any credit, it is for inventing a strange new language that may only be intelligible to the maker/s of the film! Not only Tamil viewers, but Sinhalese viewers from Sri Lanka have also clearly highlighted how the film has blatantly butchered the Tamil language. 

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Insulting the Illankai/Eezham-Tamil Diaspora 

In responding to the very justifiable critiques made by Tamil people in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, DM goes into a reckless gibe that insults the Illankai/Eezham Tamil diaspora, claiming “if we care so much, we should be back in our country and fighting for it there!”. Coming from someone living in a country that is home to one of the world’s largest Illankai Tamil diaspora communities, as someone who co-wrote a filmscript with an Illankai Tamil author, this statement is beyond nauseating, to say the very least. Anyone who has the slightest idea of the acts of systemic discrimination, and acts of violence perpetrated against the Tamils of Sri Lanka – much of that violence being state-sanctioned – would cringe before making such a claim. This statement is clear proof that DM has strictly speaking no clue whatsoever about the sheer magnitude of what it means to be positioned at the receiving end of a deeply divided society, as an ethnonational and linguistic minority. Claims of this nature are deeply hurtful, as Lankan Tamils and members of the Tamil diaspora have clearly claimed. As a Sinhala, and Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lankan, a queer womxn and as a political analyst, it is this writer’s firm belief that the least us Sinhalese could do is to empathise with those who acutely feel the pain and anger caused by ludicrous statements of this nature. 

Movie: Fail! 

Aside the casting nightmares, butchering of one of the most ancient and richest languages, to say that some of the acting is atrocious is a euphemism. The film itself was very much like a series of unedited and undone clips wrapped together in a disorganised way. Given the structure of the book, and in DM’s own admission, given the casting-related challenges she faced, a series, composed of a number of separate episodes, may have been much more appropriate. 

Only in Sri Lanka? Why the duplicity re this film? 

What if Derry Girls – a story set in a conflict-ridden and deeply divided society during one of the most challenging years of that conflict – happened to include a foreign cast with no clue of the Derry accent, or lived experience of any description in the local context of Derry, or for that matter in the north of Ireland or the Irish Republic? What if The Crown was created by a group of people from a non-English-speaking foreign land with next to no clue of British political history? What if non-English-speaking actors who had zero resemblance of any description to the key roles were chosen to play them? What if two non-British womxn who had zero resemblance [in looks, speech, or disposition] to young and middle-aged Queen Elizabeth was chosen to play those two roles? Would a serious director even think of something so ridiculous, even in their wildest dreams? 

So why should anyone applaud, or seek to see anything positive in this nightmare of an unfunny film? This is a question that Telefilm Canada, CBC, Netflix, and all relevant Canadian authorities must seriously ask themselves. 

Withdraw the Oscar Nomination! 

Telefilm Canada, CBC, Netflix Canada and all other parties concerned should take note of the fact that this film only deserves the most unreserved contempt and boycotting. This should also especially come from us Sri Lankans who, despite all the daunting odds, believe in a better, liberal and cosmopolitan Sri Lanka for us all. It especially falls upon us Sri Lankans to provide unconditional support to the ongoing petition campaign launched by Illankai/Eezham Tamils to call upon Canada to withdraw the Oscar nomination for this [un]funny [non]film. 

It is also quite clear that this film uses narrowly construed perceptions of ethnonational politics in Sri Lanka to appeal to a predominantly white Canadian audience. The underlying logic seems to have been one of ‘who cares what language is spoken in the film or who acts in it, for as long as it is convincingly marketable to white-settler Canada?’ One of the foreign actresses, a Panjabi Canadian who plays the role of a Tamil aunty (!!!), claims that she was thrilled to be part of a film about brown people! Aside a probable cluelessness about the ethnonational politics of Sri Lanka, claims of this nature, as analysts have reiterated, amount to deeply offensive acts of erasure. The only decent thing, for the entire non-Tamil cast of this film, would have been to refuse to act roles that should have been played by Illankai Tamils, and preferably native Lankan Tamil speakers. This especially concerns the non-Tamil-speaking actress [from a highly privileged expatriate background] who touts her Sinhala-Tamil roots to gaslight and shutdown Illankai Tamils who rightly question her suitability to play a Tamil amma. 

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This writer, a Sinhala-Buddhist Lankan queer womxn, is tremendously proud of the excellent work done by many Tamil and Tamil-speaking queer people in Sri Lanka, and by Illankai/Eezham Tamils in the worldwide Illankai/Eezham Tamil diaspora – an invaluable source of critical engagement and [un]learning. In conclusion, it is worth reiterating the obvious – that Lankan Tamil queer people are best placed to make films and artistic creations about Lankan Tamil queer people.

*The writer [@fremancourt] is a political analyst. She is writing in a personal capacity, and her views do not represent those of any individual or organisation. 

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Latest comments

  • 12
    2

    What a queer piece of writing, if I may say so. There is such a thing as over-specialization.
    “DM’s choice is equivalent to a queer Pākehā New Zealander being asked to play a role of a Maōri Takatāpui character whose first language is Te Reo Maōri, in a film set in Aotearoa.”
    Would that matter to an audience who don’t know the difference?

  • 4
    15

    This film good for Tamil Nadu(formally known as Madras British name this place, because Madrascals are living)

    • 5
      3

      N. Perera, you are one sick little sh&t.

  • 3
    3

    Withdraw the Oscar Nomination!
    ====
    Nominated for Oscar?
    you must be joking?

    • 10
      0

      R
      “Canada Enters International Feature Film Oscar Race With Deepa Mehta’s ‘Funny Boy’”
      [https://variety.com/2020/film/global/deepa-mehta-funny-boy-represent-canada-oscars-2020-1234819061/]
      I have seen some good reviews in the papers.
      *
      I do not know the credentials of the writer as a movie critic, but her demand for a boycott is a little over the top to sound rather silly.

      • 1
        0

        I am hoping to watch it on Netflix over the week-end
        Well if Canada enters the film well and good
        But I cant imagine it to be an “Oscar Nomination” film
        I wonder how one boycott the nomination…sound silly?

  • 2
    1

    I had read Funny Boy of Shyam Selladurai years back and keeps a copy of the book for posterity.
    It was a fascinating book. The author himself is a homosexual, so is his hero Arjie in the book “Funny Boy”
    . The novel moves around racial tension of the 80s of the last century,culminating with the racial riots of 1983.
    About the film, I should not comment, as I have not seen the film.
    However Deepa Mehta is a disappointment if the author of this article is to be believed.
    Deepa Mehta is a well known and highly acclaimed film Director and screen writer, famous for the elements trilogy- fire, Earth and water.

  • 5
    3

    The author is being a little too harsh on the director of this movie, methinks. People who have watched the movie but who have been removed from the theatre of racist hate, the despicable murders, looting and mayhem against Tamils that prevailed and conin Illankai, have rightfully been shocked to tears, and absorbed the message very well; even if they are unaware of the nuances of the admittedly rich culture and Tamil language spoken in Illankai.

    It doesn’t require an academically oriented critique, or carping over how old or what ethnicity the ideal cast should be, to understand the ethno-religious hatred and brutality that continues to prevail in Sri Lanka.

    The Illankai diaspora are far better advised to use the story in this film to strengthen its case against the callous, orchestrated misdeeds being carried out by our now struggling “democtratic” state of Illankai. Remember, the Ides of March (2021) are nigh.

  • 5
    1

    I watched this movie yesterday. I agree with the author that it is not well-made. The novel, which I as a queer Sri Lankan loved, is not served well by this movie. It felt like DM was trying to string many unrelated short stories into a movie, without a main focus (at least a more explicit one).
    I did see her attempts to juxtapose the issue of authenticity and fear of being open about one’s identity as a gay person, to the trials of being a proud Tamil in a Tamil-fearing society. I felt the anxiety of the amma and Radha aunty in having to suppress their innate desire to be open-hearted while at the same time not to jeopardize their positions of priviledge/belonging in the upper-class Colombo Tamil society. It is in someways similar to a queer person’s desire not to jeopardize the priviledges of the closet, while exploring their sexual affinities.
    I am not sure that I agree with the author’s critique of the choice of actors. While I do support authentic representation, it is the prerogative of the casting director, director and actors to seek actors to fit the roles.
    Specifically for this film, the society it highlighted were upper-class, cosmopolitan Tamils from Colombo.

  • 6
    3

    I think the reactions of the Tamils to this film shows some of the root causes for the ethnic conflict. One should make a film out of all the hate oozing out of the Tamils. I have not read the book, but I most certainly will see the film, since people like Chamindra is asking to boycott this film, it must be a great film. Nobody seems to be bothered that this film is not released here. (PS. Shyam Selladurai, the writer of the book does not speak a word of Tamil himself).

    • 1
      1

      P.P,
      “reactions of the Tamils to this film shows some of the root causes for the ethnic conflict.”
      How profound of you! So Chamindra Weerawardena and “Sinhala Buddhist” are Tamils , and SJ is Sinhalese?

  • 10
    1

    I am not much into movies and know even less about the SL LGBTQ community. But if the actress who played Arjie’s mother is Nimmi Harasgama, I believe that Tamil activist Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham’s mixed race (half white) son Arjunan has been married to her; she was herself of mixed Tamil-Sinhala origin.

    Shyam’s mother might be a Burgher but his father was a pukka Tamil ( He used to be a tennis coach, and told me during my visit to Canada some 25 years ago, that he spent half of the year coaching in Canada and the other half in SL.) So I don’t think Tamils would make a big deal about Harasgama acting in that role.

  • 12
    1

    Gandhi in Gandhi was Ben Kingsley (A British, I presume!)

    • 2
      0

      Sarath,
      Ben Kingsley is a British citizen of Anglo-Indian heritage.
      What we would call a Burgher here.

    • 4
      0

      SarathS

      “Gandhi in Gandhi was Ben Kingsley (A British, I presume!)”

      Mother was English father was Gujarati.

  • 1
    0

    Sarath, his real name is Krishna P. Bhanji. He is a British Asian. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Kingsley

  • 4
    0

    Dear Dr Chmindra

    Thank you.

    You have stated

    “Illankai Tamils in Sri Lanka and the worldwide Tamil diaspora have clearly stated why this film is an offensive atrocity”

    “Author is a member of the Global Tamil Diaspora”

    and went about analysing the film/cast/objections etc.

    I am not sure of the definitions of “Illankai Tamils” & “Membership of the Global Tamil Diaspora” ??

    In my eyes there are SL citizens and Canadian citizens and others Nations citizens…no creed and colour I see.

  • 3
    0

    There are folks who respect others human rights and folks who do not?? based on their upbringings/religions and cultures or damn right hypocrites in denial/pretence that we are all known for specially in Asia.

    Yes there is case for upgrading/modernising/challenging the existing norms…of all prejudices and fact the cast is from there Nations is more inclusive way to address something no one want to speak out for etc.

    I am equally looking for English films made with showing the historical caste oppression in Sri Lanka and how this played out to date…how many arranged mix marriages/mix love marriages/living arrangements/day to day social phobias and the systemic and structural prejudices that exist in our societies at local levels and in the diaspora communities.

    How they have UNDERSTOOD discrimination/prejudice/social justice means…… in real life when is our turn to deliver this to the fellow man and woman…..now the more progressive societies have given the opportunities to live in their spaces…….so we do not continue with our ghetto making politics under various disguises.

    I think the commentary above by SS nailed it with the Gandhi refernce not just limited to cast but their actual spirit of Gandhism itself is missing when people object…to ludicrous things.

  • 1
    0

    Sorry……I meant to say say when people make ludicrous objections.

    • 1
      0

      The cast is mixer of Indian continent is also good as the SAARC countries need to come to term with their own reality. This in a way makes the right mix.

      When I worked in Malaysia/Vietnam/Thailand…and few other asian countries travelled they are very advanced societies when it come to LGBT community not only to respect them as their children but interms of public and professional life much respected.

      It is time we question ourself as to who we are????? this goes a long way into asking very many fundamental questions regard to the “killing fields” and how we ended as Diaspora too??

      Other Nations approve this type of work as they are also fully aware how ghetto minded and secretive people we are not realising the full potential for total freedom from all our deeds.

  • 13
    0

    This is a a spiteful, venomous, agenda driven spraying of poison. The personal animosity and the vengefulness of the writer is so obvious.
    The writer who is a political analyst is dictating to the readership to boycott a work of art. Is she an art critic? Is she a cinema critic?
    You don’t have to be a critic to write an opinion piece on any subject. Which is exactly what this is. The writer has no professional or moral authority over art per se to write this jealous, vindictive piece of poison.
    The only true mission of art is to state the its point of view. It is not the job of art to interpret and preach how it should be viewed.
    In true Sri Lankan jealous style the writer has taken scathing screen shots from websites ridiculing this movie , what, as irrefutable evidence. Those spiteful , hateful screenshots are also just opinions just like this spiteful opinion piece.
    Calling for boycott , censorship is of intellectual or artistic work is the hallmark of petty and small people who cannot tolerate a deviant vantage point. The fact that she calls Funny Boy ” a classic”( probably to appear unbiased) it self shows that she has very limited knowledge of literature in Sri Lanka.

  • 0
    4

    Very boring film.

  • 4
    0

    Chamindra,

    I watched the movie. It is a beautiful production, especially the depiction of the two young men (the protagonist and his boyfriend). What do you hope to achieve by boycotting this movie in addition to all the negative publicity you are trying to drum up? Don’t you think that cancel culture has gone off the deep end?

    It is quite obvious that the people who are terrified of this movie are homophobes, racists and those heavily duped by cancel culture. Sad, isn’t it?

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