Much has been said online and offline about Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, particularly its casting choices and the boycott around the movie. This review will steer clear of these topics for the simple fact that giving my two cents on the subject is neither likely to lend weight to any of the arguments nor prove to be productive. As much as I encourage the readers of this review and viewers of the movie to acquaint themselves with the discussion that took place around the time of the movie’s release — debates, after all, help locate the wider context of the text’s dissemination, from which much can be learnt — for the purposes of this review, I will stick to the material at hand.
Disclaimers aside, what I really wish to talk of is how this movie is a mixed bag. Once you set aside all the legitimate arguments about the casting and you sit down to watch it, you cannot help note that while there are certain high points — individual performances, for instance, and to an extent, the sense of nostalgia coming through the film’s cinematography comes to mind — the movie also suffers from a severe lack of imagination. The way it approaches its thesis often feels heavy-handed, unimaginative, and even clumsy, a reflection of the screenplay and the source text itself.
The issue here, however, not the translation of book to film, which is often the case with most book adaptions—think Deepa Mehta’s other book-to-film adaptation, Midnight’s Children, based on Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name. Anyone who has read Rushdie would understand the difficulty of adapting a text as rich as Midnight’s Children. It would take a feat of imagination and daring to match Rushdie’s gloriously garrulous narration and bring his book with all its nuances and wealth of absurdities onto screen, which Rushdie himself famously failed as the screenwriter to the movie, leaving little of the book’s magic and magical realism for the screen. The trouble with Funny Boy is the opposite, and I will make the mistake of using Rushdie once more to demonstrate my point.
It is always difficult to write about history, particularly the chaos and confusion of post-independence history in former colonies. There is, after all, only so much one can do when history has already been written by someone else. Writers who choose to work with this historical script have their hands tied by historical fact. There is also the fact that this history is recent, visceral, and unendingly violent. This history is so recent that what Rushdie writes of — that is the partitioning of India — directly affected my family and the course of my own life, a history which one of my aunts, who passed away recently, personally witnessed and retold in pieces. The same goes for Selvadurai’s subject — the 1983 Black July riots which many of our parents and grandparents lived through and which we, if we were born after, heard countless stories of.
The difference between these two — and let me be clear, I am not saying Selvadurai should imitate Rushdie, or that he should write like Rusdhie — is the treatment. Rusdhie, recognising the limitations of the historical script, employs magical realism, which other writers like Gabriel García Márquez and to some extent Michael Ondaatje in Running in the Family have also successfully and delightfully employed in recognition of the imaginative limits of contemporary history. Selvadurai, in contrast, writes it as it is — and there is nothing inherently wrong with this brand of realism — but rather blandly, which unfortunately comes through in the screenplay. Perhaps postmodernism is not Selvadurai’s strong suit, but both the text and the screenplay suffer from a serious lack of play and a paucity of imagination.
As a result of this lack, the characters suffer, and it is only the strong individual performances of the actors that save the movie. For instance, Brandon Ingram and Arush Nand as Arjie the teenager and child, respectively, both lend a certain credibility and nuance to their characters. Ingram, for instance, manages to convey a boyish innocence and charm despite the crow’s feet that are a dead giveaway of age. Nand manages to creep into your heart and steal it, allowing the viewer to relate and sympathise with his character. Neither Ingram nor Nand, however, are able to be anything more than the privileged Colombo Tamil boy who discovers that he is gay, a “funny boy” as they like to call him, and this is neither Ingram’s nor Nand’s faults. There is simply nothing more to his character.
One can say he likes music and other odds and ends, but that is hardly the hallmark of a great character whose struggle leaps across the screen and text to endure in your thoughts and conscience. It almost appears that in the rush to convey the main thematic concerns of the text, the characters are mere archetypes, props to get from point A to B. It is almost as if the moviegoer will never come to the conclusion that Arjie is gay and that this is frowned on in conservative Sri Lanka, more so as he belongs to a minority community, if the fact had not been endlessly flagellated and beaten into them. I personally feel that the treatment of this particular thread in the narrative would have benefitted from some depth. To be sure Arjie’s struggle does not need to be validated with a well-rounded, three-dimension character — it speaks for itself, and should be spoken of at every turn — but could it have been better? Certainly.
The same goes for the text’s treatment of race. Do not look for subtlety, brilliance, or nuance here. None of the characters appear to exist for any reason but to demonstrate a point. For instance, Arjie’s aunt, Radha, acted by Agam Darshi, plays her role beautifully, but her only role is to demonstrate the destructive constraints of tradition and hard-coded boundaries of race in Sri Lankan society. She can act and sing along to Leonard Cohen, encourage Arjie to embrace freedom while her own liberty is eroded, but her role is to act as a prop who depicts fraught racial relations which prevent her from marrying Anil, the Sinhalese boy is she in love with, much to the detriment of her long-term happiness.
While I take issue with the heavy-handed treatment of sexuality and race, I will admit that I was moved by the distinctions of class presented in the movie. I thought the treatment of class — particularly its insulating privileges where both race, gender and sexuality are concerned — had mostly escaped Selvadurai’s and Mehta’s undiscriminating brush. The fact that Arjie’s family is able to pack up and leave for Canada when Sri Lanka turns hostile towards one part of its citizenry — and that most people lack this privilege and have no choice but to endure being treated as lesser and as other, and, in some cases, lose their families and their lives entirely to the unrest and conflict — was, I would go far as to say, poignant, although there were moments in the movie where this, too, was spelled out in the same brusque manner, with characters and dialogues existing solely for the benefit for this plot point.
My other gripe rests with Mehta’s technique. The movie certainly manages to convey a wistful longing for a time before the riots, for a time forever locked in Arjie’s memory, but the technique leaves much to be desired. There were sweeping moments—I particularly loved the scene where the family is in the car, driving down a scenic road, singing a Tamil song — and then there were awkward and blundering moments such as when the teenage Arjie appears to physically look in on the painful events of his childhood. There is beauty in the cinematography, at times the movie rewards you with laugh out loud humour and strikes a good balance between light and dark subjects, just as there is clumsiness and even naivete in technique when it moves between the present and the past.
This brings me to the larger question of why the text and the screenplay was written in such a mode. I fully appreciate the difficulties of dealing with history — particularly a subject as painful as the ’83 riots in a country where the voices and perspectives of minorities are constantly being eroded. I think Selvadurai should be applauded for his bravery, more so in today’s environment where even erecting a monument to the dead is greeted with state aggression, where the grief of minorities is perceived as a threat and subject to erasure, where peaceful democratic protests and even the simple act of producing literature is under siege and censorship. I do, however, wonder if such choices are a result or a reflection of the environment of the country he writes of. What would happen to a book or a movie that embraces, say, magical realism (yes, I know, magical realism has been hacked to death and is so blasé, etc etc, but please bear with me), does a Rushdie, and subverts convention, introduces the bodily and the vulgar, the incredible and incredulous, the superfluous and daring, the flagrantly ridiculous, where our nation’s political leaders are lampooned and laughed at, where nothing is sacred?
To my incomplete knowledge, there are very few texts coming out of Sri Lanka that achieve this, and even then only partially. My recent read of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chats With The Dead comes to mind, but imagine a wholly unhinged, magically real universe created by someone from the minority, someone who faces the double jeopardy of being both gay and minoritized. What would such a text lend to the world of literature, movies, and our imaginations, how much richer would our narratives and lives be — and why does it not exist? What role does censorship play here — would a leap of imagination like Rushdie’s be nurtured or even tolerated in Sri Lanka’s intolerant political environment?
The reason why I thought it was important to touch on the above was to stress on the salient points the book/movie manages to make, even if its presentation is unwieldy. There have been many points of no return in Sri Lanka’s race relations, starting with the introduction of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act — and it has been downhill ever since, culminating in the violence of the 1983 Black July riots. There have been other corrosive events that have taken place since, making one wonder if things have really changed in post-war Sri Lanka. In such an environment, the struggles and experiences of minorities as depicted by literature, art or film are doubly important—lest we, in our haste to survive and stay sane, ever forget. We should not be reaching for a reminder, but as it stands, we cannot be reminded enough. For this reason alone, I think it is worthwhile watching Funny Boy—yes, it could have been better, but it is no less important.