Photo courtesy of Eastern Eye
We watched the film, Funny Boy, directed by Deepa Mehta and adapted from Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel, twice. We were surrounded by the numerous debates and controversies about the film. The first time we watched it was with my daughter, aged 14 and the second time on January 1 with a small group of friends in Batticaloa, all of whom had lived through the war and worked tirelessly as peace activists. Both times the film took us to our own memories of the late 1970s and early 1980s. We spoke of family members and ourselves being caught in the different violent incidents and riots pictured in the film. We spoke of family and friends leaving the country after their houses were destroyed in 1983. Everyone could connect to the feelings evoked in the film as it moved through those years and it left us silent in our own memories and buried feelings. Those years had altered many of us in fundamental ways.
Even as we were moved, all of us, depending on our different relationships, knowledge and attachment to the Tamil language were appalled and had to simply ignore or try our hardest to give the benefit of doubt about the incomprehensible dubbing for almost all characters who uttered sentences and words in Tamil intermittently. But we will return to this later.
For myself, the post-colonial school system, English novels and theatre, tennis courts, dinner outings on the beach, live bands and meals at clubs were familiar of elite Colombo life. The culture of elite boys’ schools where you refer to each other through surnames still continues. As we watched the film we had conversations in amazement about how it was possible, as late as the early 1980s, for families to live such ostentatious life styles and in palatial colonial homes. Simultaneously, we noted the portrayal of the everydayness of racism, slowly but surely, getting entangled with the contours of class privilege and colonial ways of being; colonial ways that are internalized in this section of Sri Lankan society as one’s “own culture”. All of this came through powerfully in the film. Two poignant examples of that were the scenes in the school where a group of Sinhala boys were bullying a Tamil boy, while the main protagonist Arji (who barely escaped the same fate in the school toilet) and Shehan (soon to become his lover), converse in elocuted English about this heavily normalized incident. Similarly, it came through in the interaction between the Tamil grandmother and the Sinhala parents of Anil Jayasinghe, the lover of Ratha aunty. Just as effortlessly as vile racist words fall out of their mouths, they are also invited politely for a cup of tea. They sit, albeit awkwardly, and sip tea out of beautiful colonial tea cups while continuing to hate one another!
As a Tamil speaking child my daughter was, of course, irritated and amazed at how badly Tamil was spoken in the film. She started reading the English subtitles instead although she didn’t need to. The Tamil was grating. It felt like a profound violation to watch a film about oppression and violence and about the roots of a brutal war – into which we were born and lived most of our lives – which was about identity, language and land with that very language – Tamil – deformed so badly. As a trilingual person of mixed ethnic identity, I also recognized the heavy Sinhala accent in the Tamil. For Tamil people in this country this evoked memories of Sinhala speaking military personnel haltingly and aggressively speaking Tamil as they controlled the population of the North and East for decades. It evoked horrifying memories of check point interrogations and commands during house searches and round-up operations that ended in disappearances and murder. It is the same Tamil I remember in a Presidential speech on the eve of the end of the horrific war where thousands of civilians had been killed and injured. The unforgettable words of a Sinhala President on May 19, 2009 saying that the innocent Tamil people were protected by the military by giving their lives and that they have now been freed from “terrorism” were uttered in this Tamil. The lack of respect for a language and history in a film which has and will continue to represent a facet of this history that has not been shown thus far – namely queer love in the midst of war – is unacceptable and completely unnecessary. It shows utter disregard, insensitivity and arrogance.
We were watching for the first time a story of romance and love between two boys. For my 14 year old daughter, it was nothing unusual. She has grown up in a home and a world where being queer is natural. She has read it in novels, children’s story books, seen it in movies, in cartoons and most importantly she is loved and cherished by many queer family and friends. She is, however, shaken by the story of the war shown so powerfully in the film. I gently tell her of her grandfather, coming home in a bus from work as the rioters burned, killed and destroyed Tamil homes and businesses, got identified as a Tamil. I tell her of how he managed to talk his way out of the hands of this murderous mob because his Sinhala was “passable”. I had to explain, with agony in my heart and hers, to my child that in desperation, her grandfather hid and denied his Tamilness. The rioters did, however, grab his gold chain with a cross on it – a sign of his Tamilness at that time – as they let him go.
For these powerful images and much more, it is an important film. The most compelling contribution of the film is of course the portrayal of the struggles of intersectional identities of Arji, the main protagonist beautifully played by Brandon Ingram and Arush Nand. His struggles as a young gay boy negotiating and resisting homophobia in his most secure and intimate spaces – at home – even while his Tamilness in Colombo gets highlighted in the lead up to the horrors of the 1983 riots is beautifully captured. Both these struggles are fundamental to his sense of identity and equally devastating to his very being when attacked. At the same time, there are moments of tenderness, of understanding and of complex loyalties in his everyday interactions with regards to both these identities. For example, the Sinhala family who hides them as the mobs come searching for them, or the moment where his brother stops their father from striking Arji when he says he met his lover Shehan (also a Sinhala boy) again.
All of these moments in the film are powerful contributions for discussion and debates around identity politics that we all negotiate every day. Shehan, for instance, is quick to respond with anti-Tamil words when his heart is hurt as Arji comes to terms with his sexuality and his love for him. Arji’s family friend, an alleged member of the LTTE, leaves him with a quote by Dale Carnegie – “action breeds confidence and courage” – which is what sends him back to Shehan to declare his desire for him. Moments before Arji leaves his room forever as the mobs close in, in what was the most moving moment of the film for me, he puts on his black T shirt gifted to him by Shehan with an image of Eurythmics – powerful gay icons.
Funny Boy is a film about Colombo. It is a film about sexuality as negotiated by young gay boys from elite backgrounds – both Tamil and Sinhala. It is a film about the sharpening of ethnic identity even amongst the most privileged in 1983 before during and after the violence. It is a film about human beings defying the default hatred of their time and loving and supporting one another instead and even saving each other’s lives. Funny Boy, or any other film, cannot represent diverse realities across time and place of Tamil queer realities. However, in the absence of very many Sri Lankan Tamil queer films, it becomes representative of this rather broad identity category although it portrays a very specific class experience in a particular place and time. The portrayal of that specific context is one that stays with you for weeks, maybe even months and years. This is dampened, but not completely erased, by the horrifying Tamil dubbing and its implications.
The unfortunate profound disrespect for the Tamil language in the film, for which no excuses are adequately explanatory, violently breaches its role as representative of Sri Lankan Tamil gay or queer identities and histories. For it to have been an effective film about elite Colombo boys coming to terms with their sexualities and ethnic identities during this strenuous time, they didn’t need to necessarily speak Tamil at all. The choice to have some dialogues in Tamil, irrespective of the intentions of those involved in the film, places the film squarely in its representative role; a role the films fails at appallingly because of an easily avoidable error.
The debates about the presence of barely any Tamil queer actors in the film isn’t easily excusable in today’s context. While I know this can be a tougher process to negotiate, it is still a choice the filmmaker and writer could have made more resolutely. Nevertheless, the portrayal of a significant Sri Lankan gay character by an out gay Sri Lankan actor is not to be underestimated. Representations of identities by actors who can claim such identities is a difficult terrain about which many simplistic arguments are often made on all sides of any debate. However, it is an unavoidable and essential terrain that makers of progressive political art must navigate. They must speak of it carefully, responsibly and ethically. Such an engagement in this debate on all sides would have made for a much more grounded conversation that is in line with the complex histories of Sri Lankan ethnic identities. But alas!
Eventually we, for whom this history and the portrayal of this history in the public sphere is a question of representation, are left with an unfortunate feeling. What could have been a powerful contribution has been spoilt by lack of attention to easily solvable essential elements – a lack of political soundness and with the lack of grace to at least admit one’s folly. We may still have to screen this film in classrooms and workshops on sexuality, ethnicity and intersectionality as well as to show evocatively the history of the war. When we do so, we are going to have to warn our audience to prepare for the grating, offensive Tamil and just read the English subtitles (if they can) instead, just as my 14 year old wisely and calmly had to do.