Brandon Ingram and Nimmi Harasgama of Funny Boy on the impact of the film
By Naveed Rozais
This month sees the release of Funny Boy, the film based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai.
Directed by acclaimed Indian film director Deepa Mehta and adapted to the screen by Selvadurai himself, Funny Boy has been making an impression for months, with a diverse cast of South Asian actors bringing Funny Boy’s story to life.
Funny Boy was picked up by Hollywood filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY for distribution, and opened on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on 4 December and on Netflix in the UK, the US, and Australia on 10 December.
The film was also selected to be the opening night film at the I-View World Human Rights Film Festival in New Delhi on 10 December and, very encouragingly, has been made Canada’s official entry for the 2021 Academy Awards in the International Feature Film category.
Funny Boy’s themes are complex on many levels. It tells the story of Arjun Chelvaratnam, an affluent Tamil boy growing up in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s. Funny Boy shows Arjun – or Arjie – realising that he is gay, and exploring and coming to terms with his sexuality in a conservative time in a conservative Tamil family against the backdrop of growing Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic tension that would come to an ugly head in July 1983 with the Black July riots, the death toll of which is estimated to be anywhere from 400-3,000 people with 150,000 people being made homeless.
Funny Boy has elicited significant controversy, with groups of Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora expressing their displeasure that leading roles in the film are played by non-Tamil actors. Mehta has since spoken about her process of adapting Funny Boy from book to film, explaining that while she did try to cast Tamil actors in Tamil roles, she focused on the talent of the actors; with Arjie’s casting, in particular, she focused on capturing Arjie’s journey as a young, gay man, eventually casting Brandon Ingram in the role (Ingram is not Tamil, but is an openly gay Sri Lankan actor).
Funny Boy is one of those rare adaptations that stays largely faithful to its source material, probably because it was adapted for the screen by its author. There are changes, to be sure; some subplots altogether do not occur, and some things are changed around slightly. But this does not detract from the powerful story Funny Boy tells – that of a young queer (and yes, privileged) person coming of age in a time of great turmoil that adds volumes to his personal struggle. Funny Boy tells all aspects of this story because it understands the intersectionality of it. It’s not just about Arjie’s journey of self-discovery or the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, but about all those things.
The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with two of the lead cast members of Funny Boy, Brandom Ingram who plays the main character and Nimmi Harasgama who plays Nalini, Arjie’s mother, for their insights into how Funny Boy came to life and what they’re most looking forward to with the film’s release.
Becoming a part of the Funny Boy journey
Funny Boy’s journey from book to film has been long, with several iterations of its screenplay being scrapped before Selvadurai adapted it himself.
Ingram shared that Selvadurai reached out to him during the casting process, recommending his work to Mehta who then auditioned him and offered him the role. It was Ingram’s first film role.
“I only had experience in theatre before, and 13 years of theatre doesn’t prepare you for something like this. I found it quite fascinating. In theatre, you start at the beginning and go on to the end, while a movie could start with the last scene and end with the first. The process was new to me and I was very fascinated,” Ingram shared.
Harasgama, who plays Arjie’s mother Nalini in the film, brings to life a complex character who loves and supports her son but is also limited by the conservative society to which she belongs. For Harasgama, the audition process began two years before filming when she was working on the drama series The Good Karma Hospital, which is filmed in Sri Lanka.
“I did one audition for Arjie’s mother Nalini, and then Deepa got back to me and gave me directions saying try this and try that. I didn’t hear from her for a while after that.”
Mehta and Harasgama then had a quick coffee meeting when Mehta was visiting Sri Lanka, following which Harasgama was offered the role two years before filming began.
“I had a long time to look at the script,” Harasgama said on how she prepared for the role. “As much as you do the work and come prepared, once you’re through that door to the set, Deepa is with you through your character’s arc and journey. You meet at this point where it becomes an adventure on set and as much we stick to the journey of the overall film, each scene is its own individual adventure.”
Bringing the characters to life
Both Ingram and Harasgama weighed in on the controversy surrounding the film regarding leading roles not being played by Tamil actors. Ingram and Harasgama, along with the rest of the cast, were part of a three-day workshop before filming with renowned theatre artist Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry to connect with the emotional centres of their characters through Natya Shastra, a millennia-old drama philosophy.
Harasgama, whose mother is a Colombo Tamil, shared that as an actor, she has played many different roles in her career. In Sri Lanka, she has played Sinhalese characters and a Batticaloa Tamil woman. In her work in England, she has played Indian characters, characters from Punjab, characters from Gujarat, nurses, a goddess, etc.
“As an actor, if I were in England and limited to playing roles of Sri Lankan or Sinhalese characters or part-Tamil characters, I would be unemployed. It’s only recently that there are scripts out there with great Sri Lankan characters,” Harasgama said.
Ingram spoke on the process of bringing Arjie to life, sharing: “We were all learning from emotional centres relevant to the characters we were playing. A lot of it was drawing empathy. A shared empathy that we could feel for our fellow people. For myself, I was really focused on the queer experience that is the emotional centre of Arjie’s character. Black July is a component of a much bigger story of a much greater telling. Funny Boy is a family drama where the boundaries of the family are tested through conflict, sexuality, tradition versus desire, what this means for marriages, and the relationships between different family members.
“Each of the characters drew a lot from these places. For some, it was the ethnic presence, for some their sexual identity. For others in the cast, it was the divisiveness they had all faced. We’re looking at actors from various ethnic backgrounds, like Sikhs, Pakistanis, and so on. For me personally, it was more about sexual identity than ethnic identity because that’s what Arjie was dealing with the most.”
Harasgama shared that her heritage played a part in how she interpreted the role. “I came with my own toolbox to start with. My family was here during the 1983 riots, and I was able to pull from that. Some scenes were close to home, even in terms of location. It was very surreal for me.
“I looked to my mother for the role because to me, she embodied everything within the character of this film. She’s been through so much of what Nalini went through. This isn’t something I normally have the luxury of. It was very cathartic for me in a sense, but I can’t just isolate an experience because my family went through that experience. As actors, we all go through stuff that allows us to be authentic in our performances.”
Ingram shared that he, Harasgama, and the rest of the Funny Boy cast are empathetic of the criticism that has been made about Funny Boy.
“We do recognise that people have been hurt and a memory has come up that has left a bad taste in one’s mouth. Generational pain of this nature is layered in so many different ways, and we must be careful of not getting into that space of saying, ‘my pain is greater than yours’, because who are we to say that?
“You can’t say that the homosexual experience is more terrible than being a Tamil at that time in Colombo. It makes us less human. Everyone’s pain is valid because it’s there, and our pain is greatest because it’s ours. We hope we can all say ‘let’s share this pain’ and that healing can now happen.”
The broader impact of Funny Boy
Funny Boy is a film that captures the experience of a young gay person in South Asian culture coming to terms with themselves. It’s not a first; there have been films from India and other South Asian countries dealing with these themes, but on a larger level, Ingram shared that what sets Funny Boy apart from the rest is the lens through which Funny Boy tells its story.
“Usually, when we have Asian and South Asian characters depicted in TV shows and films, we see them through an American lens or through the lens of a global norm. I feel that while we as Sri Lankans are struggling to find our identities as a nation, sub-identities come into play. I constantly struggle with what it means to be a gay man in Sri Lanka because of the coupling of this identity within our culture, values, ideas of family and home, and how we want to build our lives.”
The impact of the film on young people also cannot be understated. Speaking on Black July, Harasgama shared that people in the South of Sri Lanka, especially the younger generation, don’t know the story behind Black July.
“I don’t even know whether Black July is in the textbooks in our schools. It’s really important for the communities here, the international communities, and diaspora that a film like this comes to make people more aware. My family experienced the riots first-hand. That moment in history is so important to remember because of what happened afterwards and because they need healing. Hopefully, this will help more films to come out. Not just here, but also in other countries.”
Harasgama added that Funny Boy is a film with almost an exclusively South Asian cast. “It’s a film full of brown people and it is glorious that it has been picked up and is going on Netflix. It’s thrilling to see two beautiful brown men in love on screen. It’s a really important presence for us internationally and globally.”
Ingram spoke on the power of telling queer brown stories, saying: “If people can see themselves in this brown love story between two men, know that you are not alone and that this is not an alien concept – that is the broader concept of representation.”
Funny Boy will resonate deeply with all audiences, most specifically the queer audience and the Tamil audience, though their reasons for being moved, I feel, will differ greatly. The cast, their personal backgrounds and ideologies aside, all come together to deliver this story with aplomb, from the main characters with personal struggles to Arjie’s archetypically masculine father and brother, to the odious Auntie Kanthi who really needs to just mind her own business.