All of us just want to be accepted: Deepa Mehta

By Sukant Deepak

“All of us are funny boys and girls, we all just want to be accepted, whether for our choices, sexuality, race or cultures. The film is finally a plea for tolerance,” says Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta on her latest film ‘Funny Boy’, which centres on the coming of age of a young Tamil boy in Sri lanka who is coming to terms with his homosexuality against the backdrop of the increased tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese communities before the breakout of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Based on Sri-Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai book of the same name, for which she first approached the writer 20 years back, Mehta insists that though first published in 1994, the novel is politically relevant even now.

“The oppression of minorities, the changes taking place globally — especially in the US, and the depleting sense of humanity. To me, the novel speaks of humanity and embracing ‘the other’. It is about acceptance and the importance of love. The Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic happened, and nothing felt more right in these troubled times,” says the filmmaker who plans to work on a horror film and the movie adaptation of Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning ‘The Far Field’ once the vaccine rolls out and it’s safer to shoot.

For a long time, the filmmaker had been asked when she would make ‘Air’, to round out the elemental trilogy — ‘Fire’, ‘Water’ and ‘Earth’. “And I had no plan to do so. While completing ‘Funny Boy’, I realised that it had invariably become the fourth — ‘Space’ rather than ‘Air’. To me, ‘Funny Boy’ represents the need for space — to be ourselves in a world that has always tried to push us into a box based on our race, sexuality, gender and culture,” she tells IANS.

Stressing that the India premier of the film during the opening night at the I-View World Human Rights Film Festival in Delhi was extremely special to her, she says that Selvadurai’s support was instrumental to get the nuances right. “The first draft of the script was solely written by Shyam and I remember telling him, ‘It is too long. We must make it more cinematic.’ And he was totally on board. From then on we worked through the scripting process together.”

The director, who has also worked with authors like Salman Rushdie and Bapsi Sidhwa remembers that while the latter entrusted her with her story and gave the freedom to paint the picture as she wished, with Salman, there was a sense of balance. “We looked at the story individually and then came together to share our visions of what we thought the film should look like. With Shyam, it was total collaboration from day one. I wouldn’t call any of them ‘possessive’.”

As the conversation shifts towards the Tamil community in Canada feeling that there are not enough Tamil actors in the movie, she quotes James Baldwin — “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain”. “I think that’s really relevant here. Of course representation is important and we did try our best. But in the end, it’s up to everyone to decide if this is more important than the plight of the Tamils coming to the surface and a chance for healing. In fact, at an early private screening in Sri Lanka, some people in the audience were apprehensive about how the Sinhalese Government would react to the film since they felt it was so pro-Tamil. So it was a surprise for us when the Tamils reacted and said we were anti-Tamil.”

Though the film has not been released in Sri Lanka yet, the response from the few who have seen it during underground screenings has largely been positive. “Especially from those who had lived through the conflict in the 80s, for whom seeing their pain reflected on screen was a major moment, and from major Tamil activists like Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. They also gave us notes on the dodgy Tamil, which we were already planning to fix. As a filmmaker, I know how important that is. Even in Water, Lisa’s voice was dubbed. But finally what’s important is the bigger picture.”

Adding that it was a huge shock to her that no Sri Lankan Tamil director had ever approached Selvadurai to make ‘Funny Boy’, she feels that it is high time that more films were made around that conflict.

“In an ideal world, our plan was to go back to Sri Lanka to dub for the Indian actors and even had studios booked, but due to the pandemic we could not do so. We also missed out on celebrating the final film with the entire team, which is a sad reality of the circumstances we’re living in today. We’re still working on our release for South Asian markets,” says the director who says she has always been driven by curiosity. “I do films on subjects that interest me, ones I would like to know more about,” she concludes.

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