On the surface, “Funny Boy” has very little to do with the Barbra Streisand musical its title is riffing on. The story of a fey Sri Lankan Tamil boy growing up in 1970s Colombo is a far cry from Fanny Brice’s ascent from the Lower East Side to the heights of show business. The title comes from the Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel, which is read and taught widely in Sri Lanka today. Though Arjie (Brandon Ingram), the film’s wide-eyed central figure, is more of a David Bowie fan, the title’s slight homage to the beloved diva seems apt. Especially when young Arjie steels himself from bullying by declaring, “don’t mess with the grand diva,” the faintest hint of Streisand rising from behind his red feather boa.
Intimate and beautifully rendered, “Funny Boy” is a visually lush coming-of-age drama set amidst a vicious ethnic conflict that is regionally specific, but tragically universal. It is the latest feature film from revered Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who first rose to international renown in 1996 with “Fire,” a groundbreaking lesbian romance that was censored in India after screenings led to violent protests and the destruction of movie theaters. Though “Funny Boy” is a far more chaste film, it may find more controversy for its portrayal of the 1983 riots, or Black July, the anti-Tamil pogroms that began the 26-year Sri Lankan Civil War.
The film opens in 1974 Colombo, with little Arjie (played in his younger years by Arush Nand) playing dress-up on the manicured lawn of his wealthy family’s pristine villa. Though he looks adorable in his red lipstick and wedding dress, his “funny” leanings draw concerns from his traditional Tamil family, which includes strict father Chelva (Ali Kazmi) and more sensitive mother Nalini (Nimmi Harasgam). Just as his concerned parents attempt to clamp down on Arjie’s gender fluid play, in walks Auntie Radha (Agam Darsh), a lifeline who brightens his childhood with her love of theater and vibrant spirit.
It’s through Radha that Arjie first witnesses the cruelty of his country’s ethnic divide, when she is forbidden from seeing a Sinhalese boy she falls for in drama class. Later, she narrowly survives a violent attack on the train ride home. While it sounds bleak, Mehta strikes a delicate balance between the growing unrest and Arjie’s relatively idyllic childhood and self-actualization. By insulating and protecting Arjie, she insulates and protects the film from becoming too heavy; the walls never fully close in until its dramatic finale.
Theater actor Brandon Ingram makes a confident screen debut as the older Arjie, maintaining the character’s childlike innocence and carefree flamboyance even as he becomes wiser to the cruelties of the world around him. Recalling the early queer film “Another Country,” Arjie’s school days feature fresh-faced boys in crisp white button-ups and striped ties. It’s here that Arjie meets the pretty-faced Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), who quotes Oscar Wilde and lives alone on a grand estate, his bedroom papered with Bowie posters.
Their privilege insulates them in many ways, as they easily find privacy to explore each other in their roomy mansions. Shehan elevates Arjie’s tennis game, turns him onto Gore Vidal, and inspires him to embrace his differences. Though guarded and mostly innocent, their romance is tender, goofy, and filled with song. There’s too much going on in “Funny Boy” for a lavish love scene to feel appropriate, and Mehta delivers an elegant semi-nude dance scene that speaks volumes. As the young men twirl and coo to “Every Breath You Take,” their unbridled joy becomes a poignant act of defiance, especially given the terrors awaiting Arjie when the music stops.
Mehta and cinematographer Douglas Koch employ mostly handheld shots to create an immersive, intimate feel to the action. Often, the camera will swing wildly from the blue sky into a scene, or pull backwards without warning. Such choices can be distracting, but it’s certainly a choice, one that’s effective in creating a cohesive style. Mehta also switches out the two Arjies at various moments; popping grown-up Arjie in to observe Radha in love, or child Arjie onto the tennis court when his father is berating the teenager. The heavy-handed device is a little overused; a little would have gone a long way.
The script, co-written by Mehta and Selvadurai, tracks the novel’s various characters and include enough secondary storylines without overdoing it. A sub-plot involving a family friend who joins the Tamil Tigers and creates tension between Arjie’s parents feels neither rushed nor overly indulgent, and fills out the universe of the film nicely. Though “Funny Boy” is a much more manageable length, this economy of story stands in contrast to Mira Nair and Andrew Davies’ recent BBC adaptation of the Indian novel “A Suitable Boy.”
“Funny Boy” has garnered criticism for not casting enough Tamil actors, a complicated oversight apparent in the language and diction that Western audiences will surely miss. While Ingram isn’t Tamil, he is gay (and also quite a good actor), and casting an out gay actor is itself a political choice that was important to both the director and writer. As “Funny Boy” reaches wider audiences, thanks to a Netflix premiere though Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, hopefully more members of the Tamil diaspora will be heard.
“Funny Boy” is a luminous coming-of-age tale seen through the eyes of a relatable yet entirely unique experience. Any queer person can see themselves in Arjie’s romantic yearnings; anyone who’s faced discrimination will feel his pain and confusion at being forced from his home. As if with the breezy wave of a hand, Mehta has woven these intricacies with a painterly touch, stacking the opposing forces of sexual and cultural identity into a whirl of color and emotion and memory. “Funny Boy” is heavy but never burdensome, lighthearted but never lightweight. In sweet Arjie, we find a joyous portrait of awakening, reckoning, and holding onto oneself.
“Funny Boy” starts streaming on Netflix on Thursday, December 10.