Funny Boy: Ahead of Deepa Mehta's film release, all you need to know about the casting controversy

Deepa Mehta has responded to the criticism following online petitions from the Tamil diaspora for not having enough Tamil actors in her film Funny Boy's leading roles

FP Staff December 08, 2020 13:49:14 IST
Funny Boy: Ahead of Deepa Mehta's film release, all you need to know about the casting controversy

In October, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, an adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel of the same name, was announced as Canada’s official selection for Best International Feature Film for the 2021 Academy Awards. Mehta, who scored her second Academy Award nomination with Funny Boy, said the film holds up the 'flag of inclusion, in a world tethering towards an abyss of the great divide.'

However, as the film draws closer to its release, some groups from the Tamil diaspora are calling for a boycott. Here's a rundown on what all is unfolding around the film.

Plot 

Set in Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s, the film explores the sexual awakening of its young protagonist Arjie (played by Arush Nand/Brandon Ingram) from a young boy, deemed “funny” by disapproving family, to a teenager enamoured by a male classmate.

As political tensions escalate to a boiling point between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, the young boy comes of age in society and family that doesn’t embrace difference outside of societal norms.

The film chronicles Arjie’s struggle to find balance and self-love despite the absence of empathy and understanding.

Casting controversy 

Following the release of film's trailer, many people from the Tamil diaspora criticised it, saying it 'doesn't have enough Tamil actors in lead roles', which they felt was further 'erasure of the Tamil identities'.

An online petition by the Queer Tamil collective also criticised the filmmaker for not putting in any effort into casting Sri Lankan Tamil actors. The petition calls out Mehta for collaborating with Sri Lanka’s “genocidal” regime and accuses her of unacceptable “casting practices, rendering of Tamil history, language, and representation.”

Mehta says the film team spent over a year casting for the story and, but they were unable to act in the film “due to family issues and visa problems” and hence ended up with a "cast made up of 50 per cent Tamil actors, and almost all of them Sri Lankan."

"What I am most happy about is that we found Brandon Ingram who is a Sri Lankan Burgher (who plays Arjie), who is openly gay and an extremely talented actor," Mehta told The Canadian Press, in response to the criticism.

In an interview with the Mint Lounge, Mehta says talent is the most essential element for her during casting, "I love it when actors surprise me. And that has a lot to do with what the character evokes in them. There is no point casting someone politically correct who can’t act."

Language 

Eelam Tamil researcher and writer Sinthujan Varatharajah when discussing the Tamil language pronunciation in the trailer of the film told Silverscreen that is essential to portray people as accurately as possible. "There is an importance here not just in representing Tamil people properly but not substituting Tamil people with Sinhalese people."

The Canadian Tamil Congress had met with Mehta to discuss the issues the Tamil community has had with the film. During the meeting, Mehta indicated that she was aware of the “problematic nature of spoken Tamil in the film” and that “past efforts to correct this had been stalled because of the pandemic and various other factors”.

She noted that even though the trailer was produced with “unacceptable spoken Tamil, the required audio changes are currently underway to rectify the phonetic mistakes throughout the film and the final movie will be released with the changes implemented.”

Mehta told The Wire that the entire controversy was 'defensive and demeaning'. She added, "Do you want your story to be told – the story of the genocide of the Tamils? Or is it more important to you that a Sri Lankan who is not a Tamil is playing a Tamil? People want to be offended these days. It’s very easy to be offended. But I did not set about offending anybody. It is the last thing I need in my life – been there, done that and it’s exhausting."

Release

Hollywood filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing will be distributing Funny Boy and it will be released in select theatres of a few US cities. The film opened on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in Canada on 4 December and plays internationally – in the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia – on Netflix on 10 December. Funny Boy will also have its India premiere as the opening night film at the I-View World Human Rights Film Festival in New Delhi, reports The Wire.

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