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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.