Why Funny Boy's depiction of the queer Sri Lankan experience means so much to its author and star
Shyam Selvadurai and Brandon Ingram on the Oscar-submitted movie, streaming now on CBC Gem
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Shyam Selvadurai came to Canada with his family at the age of 19. Just under a decade later, he had written Funny Boy — a gay coming-of-age novel set his home country that would break boundaries and win Selvadurai many awards (including the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award). And now it has been turned into a feature film, directed by Deepa Mehta, which premieres on CBC and CBC Gem on December 4th. While not without some valid controversies (more on that later), the film is an intimate adaptation of Selvadurai's beautiful story and has been submitted as Canada's entry for the Best International Film category at next year's Academy Awards.
The film — like the book — follows Arjie Chelvaratnam, a young Tamil boy in Sri Lanka who is coming to terms with his homosexuality against the backdrop of tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese people before the breakout of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The story visits Arjie from his childhood to his teenage years, offering a (sadly rare) depiction of queer identity in Sri Lanka.
From its publication, the book had been optioned to become a film by various people, but something didn't quite sit right with Selvadurai with their attempts at adapting it. So Selvadurai decided to try himself on a whim after a Sri Lankan filmmaker friend made the suggestion.
"I was looking for a writing challenge," he says. "So I thought, 'Oh, why not?' And I did. I read a few books on screenplays and read a number of screenplays themselves and it was kind of a lovely experience. It reminded me of writing of my first novel, in this innocence and excitement of discovering a new form. And then once I'd done it, I sent it to my agent on a lark and he said, 'Hey, this is quite good.' And he asked me where I wanted to send it, and I said I'd like Deepa to see it. Deepa and I had already worked on a CBC Radio play based on one of the short stories in Funny Boy."
He and Mehta went back and forth with the script for a while, until eventually everything came together and auditions started. Mehta involved Selvadurai in that process, sending him audition tapes and taking suggestions — one of whom was Brandon Ingram.
An out Sri Lankan actor based in Colombo, Ingram would go on to be cast as adult Arjie for his first feature film role — a major feat that he calls "an amazing experience." He had been working in theatre for about 13 years but had only just started considering film, and it ended up being quite fateful that his first role would be Funny Boy.
"I recently revealed to Shyam and the rest of the team the other night that I had never read Funny Boy until the audition," he says. "And this really had to do with growing up for years in a country like ours — a beautiful country that comes with its other side of things: of legalities, of stuff we haven't come to terms with culturally speaking, laws that pertain to one's sexuality and the freedoms that come with it."
As Ingram was struggling with his sexuality as a teenager, he would see the book at shops but go out of his way to not pick it up.
"There was always this fear of, 'If I buy this book right now, they're going to know about me and they're going to know that this is me,'" he says. "I was always guided and led by that fear. And then to have moved from there into then embodying the role in Funny Boy, it couldn't have been a better thing to be my first film."
As the film makes its way out into the world, first via CBC and then on Netflix, both Selvadurai and Ingram have high hopes for the audiences it could reach.
"There are lot of Sri Lankan Tamils here [in Canada] and people don't quite know where they come from and who they are. So the film does what I hope the book would do, which is say: This is where these people have come from and this is what they have suffered. This is who they are, in a way. And offer that up to the general public in a sense," says Selvadurai. "We have a large immigrant population in Canada who can be very conservative when it comes to LGBTQ issues, and I'm hoping this film begins a conversation among them that provides a way for young people in those communities to feel that love and freedom is possible. They can say, 'I can live the way I want to live because here's a film that's saying in a gentle but proud and political way.'"
Ingram feels the film can also do a lot of good in Sri Lanka, speaking to the queer experience there — something that is intensely needed in the country's culture.
"A lot of the time, we get served a very Western perspective of what it means to be gay. I feel like even right now in my life, post-coming out and having all the right conversations ... I'm still figuring it out what it means to be a gay Sri Lankan man."
I am really very envious of the character of Arjie, because I feel like he gives so much hope with his understanding of love and intimacy at a very young age. Without the right kind of guidance at that age, I was very different.- Brandon Ingram, actor
Ingram hopes that audiences see the film and then see themselves and their own struggle in it.
"I hope they see this is not some new alien thing that they are going through, like I did when I was that age," he says. "Some of the things I've been talking about in the last few weeks in interviews — this is how I am really very envious of the character of Arjie, because I feel like he gives so much hope with his understanding of love and intimacy at a very young age. Without the right kind of guidance at that age, I was very different. I was just clawing my way through it trying to figure out a whole bunch of stuff while being told that there was way that you were supposed to be."
"Those conversations are still going on today. We are much more open to talking about them, but they are still very much alive and going on. So I feel like what I want from it is for a young person who is caught up in the middle of such a conversation to just look at it and be like, 'Oh, this is not something new.'"
It would be remiss to not mention another conversation that is ongoing with respect to Funny Boy's representation. Members of the Tamil community have expressed considerable concern over the casting of non-Tamil actors as Tamil characters, with many also claiming inaccuracies in the Tamil language depicted in the film.
Mehta has responded by working with the Canadian Tamil Congress and saying that the actors' voices were being re-recorded ahead of its premiere to improve the Tamil — something she had attempted to finish earlier but was unable to do because filming was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Selvadurai defended the film by noting that Funny Boy was not "strictly speaking a Tamil book."
"I never intended it to be a Tamil book; I've always said it's a Sri Lankan book," he says. "Because at its centre is this idea of solidarity across the enthicities of these central relationships between Arjie, a Tamil, and Shehan, a Sinhalese. That's the message of the book to me. It's a very important message and a political message. In that sense, I love the casting. To me, it represents a great authenticity of voice, of accent and gesture."
Selvadurai adds that this all feels to him like the Colombo milieu in which he grew up.
"I would love to have had Colombo Tamils in some of those roles, and the actress who plays the mother of the second lead is a Colombo Tamil," he says. "I'm a little puzzled by the conversation about this because it seems that somehow people are trying to make it out that this is a Tamil novel. But it's not a Tamil novel. It's a Sri Lankan novel set in this milieu. I do understand the issue of representation, but it's not like we cast a white guy in the role of Arjie, or even an Indian. He's Sri Lankan; he is one of us. So I think that has to be said."
Funny Boy is available to stream now on CBC Gem.