To be gay in the midst of a civil war in conservative Sri Lanka. That is the crux of Deepa Mehta’s latest film, her finest since Water in 2005. I remember having heated arguments with Deepa when she cast Lisa Ray as a widow of Varanasi and John Abraham as a dhoti-clad social reformist in Water. We had a bet. If the casting worked I lost. If it didn’t I won. I lost.
Deepa Mehta has a way of making the impossible come true in her cinema. In Funny Boy, a coming-of-age drama adapted with ambrosial adroitness from Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvudurai’s celebrated novel about the author growing up in a bustling Tamilian family in strife-filled Sri Lanka, Deepa captures all the nifty nuances and mischievous glances of two boys discovering, giggle, love and, giggle giggle, sex, under strict parental vigilance.
There is an undercurrent of flirtatious warmth running through the storytelling as if Deepa Mehta has found the key to surviving the multilayered prejudice of a society in flux. Deepa is a visionary often tied down by budgetary constraints. Not this time. Funny Boy blossoms into a tale of epic dimensions and in fact the absence of an excessively wide canvas give the dramatic tension a kind of intimacy and immediacy which liberate the narrative from depending on punctuations to make its point.
The film opens with a lengthy shot of little kids playing a game of mock-wedding where our hero little Arjie is dressed as a bride. Very soon a heated argument breaks out among the kids as to why a boy can/can’t play the bride. The story of Arjie’s life! His parents, played with an unvarnished glow by Ali Kazmi and Nimmi Harasgma Arjie, the ‘funny’ boy is played by two actors Arush Nand and Brandon Ingram as the younger and older version of Arjie. One of the many pleasures of watching this upended drama on gender politics, as too gender AND politics, is to watch a gallery of unknown actors just merge into their parts.
Beside the old Mehta favourite Seema Biswas(who surprisingly has little to do) all the others are faces from the crowd playing people we know or may have known, and wouldn’t like running into again. The stand-out performance is by Agam Darshi as Arjie’s seductive and persuasive aunt Radha who liberates the confused little Arjie from his gender conflicts convinces him that it’s okay for boys to wear nail polish and their mother’s jewellery.
As the narrative progresses it gets darker. When has Deepa Mehta been afraid of the dark? And yet, even when the riots and civil war break out, love, in some magical way conquers all. The image of Arjie and his boyfriend Shehan(Rehan Mudannayake) dancing in their underwears to the enticing beats of ‘Every Breath You Take’(the 1983 chartbuster from The Police) will remain in your heart for a while.
Funny Boy is not without its flaws. The character of the LTTE rebel Jegan (Shiventha Wijesinha) never quite fits in. And that’s fine. Everything in life doesn’t have to fit in. Jigsaw puzzles are for the Chinese. The rest of the world has life to worry about and love to make it bearable.
“Different is wonderful!” a character exclaims. Not when it is done for effect. This time it is not. That’s what makes Funny Boy so wonderful.
Directed by Deepa Mehta, Funny Boy gets 4 stars.
Image Source: IMDb, youtube/cbc
Image Source: IMDb, youtube/cbc
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