“Funny Boy” tells a compelling “growing up gay” story in a country few of us know about, set against the turmoil of Sri Lanka’s bitter, decades-long civil war.
In adapting a novel by Shyam Selvadurai, director Deepa Mehta (“Water”) has created a melodrama both intimate and sweeping, an “epic on a budget” with characters and dilemmas that speak to us all in a violent political situation that would test anyone any where and at any time in human history.
As if the violence of that ethnic conflict (the war didn’t end until 2009) wasn’t challenge enough, young Arjie (Arush Nand) grows up fascinated with his mother’s clothes, preferring the company of girls and bad at sports.
We see the blood drain out of the face of his father (Ali Kazmi) when he sees his seven year old in lipstick and a dress, playing the bride in a mock wedding he and his friends are staging.
“Looks like you’ve got a funny one here,” an elderly uncle chuckles.
Arjie’s mother (Nimmi Harasgama)? It’s time for her to stop letting him put on her jewelry for her, she decides.
But Arjie has a savior. It’s the 1970s and hip Aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) blows in from Canada, where she’s been attending college. She’s a free spirit in cut-off shorts and Westernized attitudes who figures this little boy out in a flash. Dressing up, “Does it make you happy?” That’s all she needs to know.
“You are different, precocious and wonderful!”
Together the kid and his cool aunt audition for “The King and I,” and Arjie has a co-conspirator. Radha’s facing an arranged marriage with a Tamil man from Canada, but this last summer in Colombo, she falls for the attentions of a Sinhalese co-star in the show.
Little Arjie becomes the go-between for this Tamil/Sinhalese Juliet and Romeo, the “beard” on their outings, but too little to understand the ancient hatreds that make that a doomed affair.
Arjie’s family is rich, as her many of his relatives. They are a largely-Christian minority in India and on Sri Lanka. The venom he overhears in the arguments with Sinhalese all but curdle his ears. An aunt explains their plight to him and to the non-Sri Lankan viewer.
“We’re the Jews of Asia!”
As Arjie grows up (Brandon Ingram plays him in his teens and older), he absorbs the fact that homosexuality is illegal that, endures a lifetime of judgement, abuse and betrayal from his sports-addict older brother Diggy (Hidaayath Hazeer), faces discrimination in his new school and discovers his gaydar. Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake) is his first clue that “people like us exist abroad, where’s it’s not illegal to be like we are.”
They bond over “the esteemed Mister Wilde,” Western music by Bowie and The Police and oh, by the way, Shehan’s Sinhalese.
The script is a tad too on-the-nose for its own good, with its parallel tales of “forbidden love” and unhappy “boring” conventionality. The background moves to the foreground so often and to such a degree that the love stories evaporate, minimized in a culture where chaste screen romances remain the rule, even as laws and mores change.
Darshi (“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”) is the life of this party, but Ingram, a writer making his screen debut in this Canadian production, holds his own with more experienced players.
But what’s fascinating here is the story that’s told, the place where it’s set and the point of view it gets across. The Western media reflected Indian (Sinhalese) coverage of this conflict and the endless terror campaign by the Tamil Tigers guerilla group. “Funny Boy” is eye-opening just for showing us the other side, with its own schisms — rich Tamils wishing their working class revolutionary Tigers would back off.
It’s not “Doctor Zhivago,” not the most original story or original treatment of love-in-a-time-of-war as a theme. But “Funny Boy” is valuable in letting us see this world and this history through different eyes.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity, slurs
Cast: Brandon Ingram, Arush Nand, Rehan Mudannayake, Hidaayath Hazeer, Nimmi Harasgama, Ali Kazmi and Agam Darshi
Credits: Directed by Deepa Mehta, script by Deepa Mehta and Shyam Selvadurai, based on the novel by Shyam Selvadurai. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:49