Photo Courtesy of Netflix.

Funny Boy: Powerful But Inauthentic

While the movie Funny Boy provides a voice for those who exist on the fringes of our ethnocentric, heteronormative society, the true story becomes inauthentic as its characters are contrived and dislocated.

Mar 28, 2021

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.
When I first read Funny Boy, a 1994 novel by Shyam Selvadurai, I was eleven years old. It was the first book I read that centered its narrative around a young, queer Tamil boy who comes of age amid an impending civil war in Sri Lanka. I’ve read Arjie’s story countless times since then, and this yellowed, dog-eared book came all the way with me to NYU Abu Dhabi.
As a book, Funny Boy allowed marginalized voices to be heard, freely and fully. Arjie Chelvaratnam, the protagonist, is queer in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. He is also a Tamil in a country on the brink of civil war, with rising violence and bloodshed between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. A novel based on Arjie’s coming-of-age story, where he embraces and explores his queerness while navigating life as a Tamil, was nothing short of revolutionary.
Deepa Mehta, director of the well known Elements trilogy, adapted Funny Boy into an eponymous movie. To finally be able to see Arjie’s struggles and triumphs, treated with dignity and empathy on screen, was a groundbreaking opportunity for representation. I was ecstatic.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. A group of children run along the coastal sands, their precocious voices audible over the crashing waves, with lush greenery surrounding the frame. It’s a make-believe wedding party, and Arjie — played by Arush Nand and later Brandon Ingram, draped in a bright red sari with gold borders and wearing a white veil and pink lipstick, is the bride. A fight among the children breaks out, and the parents intervene, only to be concerned that Arjie, their son, is a “funny boy.”
This is where Mehta succeeds: she beautifully captures the fascination Arjie feels watching his mother dress up before going out, his confusion as she removes a gold bangle from his hand and hurt when ordered to play cricket with the rest of the boys. It’s these small moments, where Arjie, as a ten year old, is forced to sacrifice his happiness in order to maintain the reputation of his family that make the heart of the film. As he plaintively asks his domineering father, “Why does everyone say I’m funny? What does that even mean?” It becomes unfortunately clear that the tropical paradise the film is based in is at odds with its prejudiced society.
There is hope however, and it comes in the form of Radha Aunty, played by Agam Darshi. Outspoken and rebellious, she provides Arjie with the compassionate understanding that has been lacking so far. Yet, even her rebellious acts have limits, as seen when she paints Arjie’s toenails red — because red toenails are easy to hide. It’s a small act, but one which succinctly captures what it means to be queer in Sri Lanka: you can be yourself, as long as no one else sees.
Radha Aunty is also the person who introduces Arjie, along with the audience, to the simmering tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, which is the main plotline in the latter half of the film. She falls in love with a Sinhalese man and again, it’s the almost inconsequential moments that truly reflect how deeply ingrained prejudice and hatred is.
When asked the name of the man she had been seen with, Radha hesitates and softly whispers, “Anil Jayasinghe,” well aware that the name alone is enough to identify him as Sinhalese, and thus, as an undesirable suitor. Despite strong opposition to their relationship, Radha and Anil continue to meet in secret, and the audience feels hopeful that their bond will somehow survive the weight of centuries of ethnic tensions. However, there is an impending sense of doom carried throughout the plotline and it’s finally realized when Radha, along with many other Tamils, is attacked by a Sinhalese mob while traveling on a train. The sudden explosion of violence is captured in close detail and proves to be a pivotal moment in the film. The shock and trauma of being a witness to such horrific bloodshed changes her; and by capturing how Radha shifts from being an outgoing, exuberant presence to an almost wooden, passive character Mehta conveys how the political affects the personal.
The film’s careful also delivers a nuanced showing of queer love. Arjie, now sixteen, falls in love with his Sinhalese classmate, Shehan and the space they create with each other, where they paint their toenails bright red or flirt using Oscar Wilde quotes, is a refreshing change from the tokenistic representation of the queer community one generally sees. One of the most tender moments involves Arjie and Shehan dancing with each other in an abandoned hall, to the tune of “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police. And for a moment, one can almost forget the bigotry and hatred brimming outside and revel in the goofy happiness and comfort of first love.
Yet, the film is not without its flaws which threaten to undermine its ambitious goals. The most blatant of these is the inadequate representation of the Tamil community and the inaccurate representation of the Tamil language. There are no Tamil actors in lead roles — with the exception of Nimmi Harasgama, who plays Arjie’s mother Nalini is half Tamil and half Sinhalese — despite 50 percent of the film’s cast being Tamil. This led to online petitions by the Tamil diaspora calling for a boycott of the film. There has also been criticism against the treatment of Tamil, as well as English, in the film, because it felt inauthentic and stilted. This detracts from the impact of the film and its message; half-hearted attempts at representation undermine the poignancy and impact of certain scenes, for it creates a sense of dislocation. It also does a disservice to the community it aims to represent and becomes complicit in its erasure.
The film also conveniently ignores Arjie’s family, the Chelvaratnams. They belong to the wealthy, upper class society of Colombo, which affords them a level of protection not granted to the average Tamil. There is a single scene where Ammachi, the matriarch of the family, goes to the butcher and gets into an argument because he does not speak to her in Tamil. When questioned as to why, he replies that he cannot afford to lose any Sinhalese customers. While this is an unfortunate reality of the time, it is extremely unlikely that Ammachi, a wealthy, upper-class woman would go to the butcher herself to buy meat. It is these narrative inconsistencies that undercut the depth of the material. Contrived plotlines such as these serve no purpose beyond a tokenistic acknowledgment of class privilege.
Class privilege can only go so far though, and this becomes strikingly clear as Black July approaches. The anti-Tamil pogrom that took place in Sri Lanka in 1983 was a more violent and conspicuous depiction of the ethnoreligious discrimination Arjie had had to face his entire life. Arjie, along with his family, was forced to hide in the storeroom closet of his Sinhalese neighbor, and watch as his house was looted and burnt. It is a terrifying scene, one where the simmering tensions of the entire film are brought together in a disastrous and tragic manner.
Mehta’s film is important. It succeeds at capturing the intimate moments between characters, but fails at affording them consistent attention and depth. Her film provides a voice for those who exist on the fringes of our ethnocentric, heteronormative society; but when, at times, those voices are contrived and dislocated from the very society they exist in, the true story gets lost in inauthenticity.
Githmi Rabel is Opinion Editor. Email her at
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