Deepa Mehta’s filmmaking career spans decades, though she’s perhaps best known for her “Elements” Trilogy; Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005) confront nearly every controversial or taboo subject in Indian culture, from homosexuality and racism to arranged marriages, misogyny and suicide. It was the latter that my younger self discovered as a recent college grad and just coming into my own as a cinephile with a growing interest in international and independent film. Water, like all of Mehta’s films I’d come to discover, is a gorgeously photographed work of visual art while delivering a pointed commentary on those aspects of Indian life she’s exploring in a given film. Though perhaps not as transcendent as the likes of her earlier work, the filmmaker’s latest, Funny Boy, about a boy growing up gay in 1970s and early ’80s Sri Lanka, is nevertheless a respectable effort with plenty to say about the patriarchy, gender roles, young love and, for good measure, political drama.
Based on the book (about his own experiences) by Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy begins when Arjie is just a boy (played in early portions of the film by Arush Nand), playing with his cousins on their family estate in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (t’s a deliberate choice to place Arjie’s story in the country’s largest city, as Mehta weaves the very real clashes between the population’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities into her protagonist’s experiences growing up.) They’re play-acting a wedding, and Arjie is right at home as the bride, complete with a veil and bright red lipstick. Nothing about it seems odd, until one of the other children says it is, giving Arjie pause to think about why it should be so wrong for a boy to be a bride. Running to check with his parents and grandmother for reassurance, he gets a mixed response to the question of gender roles in children’s play, a dynamic that will carry through to his adolescence and teen years.
Arjie’s cool (read: progressive) aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) seems to be the only safe ally as he becomes more aware of just how different he is from other boys; a seemingly minor scene where she sweetly paints his toenails (so he can hide them inside his shoes) becomes a touchpoint in Arjie’s developing understanding of who to trust with expressing his truest self. Soon, Mehta skips ahead to a teenage Arjie (now played by Brandon Ingram) now attending an all-boys boarding school where he’s less concerned about hiding his sexuality and more worried about the growing discrimination he faces for being Tamil. It’s at school that he meets and gingerly enters into a relationship with Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), a classmate far more confident in his identity and more than happy to help Arjie explore his. Their romance is sweet in the way most first loves are; they enjoy secret moments of affection and develop endearing inside jokes and a friendly rapport.
Alongside Arjie’s coming-of-age storyline, the film digs into the dramas of his immediate family as well; Radha’s decided to upend her engagement for the sake of a Sinhalese man she’s unexpectedly fallen for (much to the chagrin of her conservative mother), while his own mother becomes politically emboldened by a relative who joins the Tamil Tigers in order to fight back against encroaching prejudices. Though none of it threatens to steal focus from the central character and storyline, it all serves to create a more holistic portrait of Arjie’s tumultuous young life. And as political tensions rise and Arjie and Shehan’s relationship becomes more serious, the danger both surrounding him and that which he courts through his relationship seems to be close to a boiling point.
In the end, Funny Boy is a worthy addition to Mehta’s substantial filmography, the latest in her professional endeavor to tell the stories of those marginalized and “othered” in India and beyond. A sumptuous production (Arjie’s family home alone is a singularly impressive set-piece) in Mehta’s signature style, the film’s key actors carry Arjie from childhood to adolescence with a common sense of innocence and a quiet assurance that he’ll be OK whatever happens. The film offers a glimpse into a time of political upheaval through the lens of a young man in the midst of his own massive changes, and both, though fraught and filled with potential hazards, are necessary to become their respective future versions.
Funny Boy is now streaming on Netflix.
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