Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, featuring a cast of primarily Sri Lankan actors, has been released on Netflix. Although not yet available to Lankan users, the adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel of the same name has been subject to some criticism following online petitions from the Tamil Diaspora for not having enough Tamil actors in the film.
The film was originally announced as Canada’s official selection for Best International Feature Film for the 2021 Academy Awards and has since been rejected from that category due to it not qualifying as an “international film” for which there should be sufficient foreign dialogue. The film has since been submitted under the “Best Feature Film” category.
The casting controversy, however, has been brewing since the release of the film’s trailer, with many criticising about it not having cast enough Tamil actors in its leading roles, despite telling the story of Tamil people, which according to the Tamil Diaspora was contributing to the erasure of the Tamil identities, even prior to its release.
Mehta was criticised for not putting enough effort into casting Sri Lankan Tamil actors, and she has addressed these accusations stating that the cast made up to 50% Tamil actors and almost all of them Sri Lankan. She has said she is most happy about having found Brandon Ingram – a Sri Lankan Burgher who plays the lead role of Arjie, the protagonist whose sexual awakening is chronicled in the film – and Mehta had stated that Brandon is an amazingly talented actor who is also openly gay.
Mehta had further said that talent is the most essential element for her during casting, and that “there is no point in casting someone politically correct who can’t act”.
This conversation of representation of gay actors playing gay characters, and of course of Sinhalese actors playing Tamil characters, is not in any way a new conversation; the importance of representation in film and cinema has been discussed back and forth for years now, and while many have their opinions, we reached out to a number of Lankan filmmakers to share their thoughts on the matter and what they believe is the correct casting when it comes to portraying their characters.
While many chose not to comment on a highly politically charged subject, those who chose to share their thoughts expressed somewhat similar sentiments of “it depends”.
Speaking with Susiran De Silva, who directed one of this year’s most talked-about comedies, Miss Jenis (which was also the final project to be released with Lankan cinema great the late Jayalath Manoratne), he shared with us his opinion of the topic of accurate representations.
While he is yet to watch Funny Boy, he as a director has always had to address this issue of casting. In his very personal opinion, he believes it is entirely dependent on the character and on the director’s point of view. It should be up to the director to make that final decision.
Susiran shared an example where in Sri Lanka, we have Pooja Umashankar who has taken on the role of the leading lady in numerous Sri Lankan productions. You can see that she is beloved by Lankans and she has always played Lankan women despite being an Indian. She is a beloved actress here because the director made a choice, and the audience has come to love the characters she has portrayed.
He said he is speaking strictly about cinema when he believes that when it comes to films, it is a director’s medium; however, when it comes to television serials, it is a writer’s medium and the writer reigns supreme there. And so in cinema, if the director believes a certain actor is best suited to actualise their vision, then that is whom they should cast regardless of what their nationality, race, or creed is.
We spoke to actor Saranga Disasekara who shared a bit of his own experience with this kind of backlash where he portrayed a character with darker skin and was accused of having done “blackface” in his portrayal of the role of the character “kehel susa” in the television show Lansupathiniyo. In playing the role of a character with a darker skin tone than the actor’s natural tone, he had been accused of being racially insensitive. He shared that he believes that as an actor, his job is to embody the lives of others to play a character, not to repeatedly play himself.
Hollywood actress Kristen Stewart also recently spoke out about gay actors playing gay characters, and she said it is a grey area and is in fact a slippery slope.
“I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience. Having said that, it’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law,” she told NBC News.
We also reached out to Gehan Cooray, the Lankan-born Los Angeles-based director, actor, and producer whose latest film The Billionaire has been officially submitted to the Oscars, the Golden Globe Awards, and the “Best Comedy Feature” winner at the Burbank International Film Festival. He too shared with us his thoughts on representation in film and the need to cast certain actors in certain roles.
Gehan, referring to his own film which features a same-sex couple and an interracial relationship, said that he has gone half and half with a number of gay characters being played by actually gay actors. He said it is always nice to have real-life LGBTI persons portray those characters.
However, he also said that there is something to be gained by having straight actors play non-straight roles; there is a unique perspective to be had there. Gehan said the main love interest in his film played by a straight man would often say “I was able to convince myself that I was in love with you” and that whenever he kissed his male co-star, who was Gehan, he would say he enjoyed it. Gehan said that he shared this because he believes what makes a good performer is an actor who is very empathetic.
Gehan shared that love is love and romance is romance, and having a straight person play a gay character brings the opportunity for them to talk about the gay experience in an organic way.
Ideally, he believes it would be best to have one half be played by a person who really identifies as the character and the other be played by an outsider, just so you are able to represent both the inside and outside perspectives in a balanced way.
About Funny Boy, Gehan said he wishes to reserve his judgment until he sees it. He has, of course, read the book and had the pleasure of meeting its author, Shaym Selvadurai, at the Galle Literary Festival once, and so he is looking forward to seeing it once it has been made available in Sri Lanka.
It would seem that coming to a definitive conclusion is nearly an impossibility on this topic. However, the overlaying arch appears to be that art is transformative and in its many shapes and forms, it should be allowed some liberties – but in doing so, how far one goes remains a question to be answered.
Main image credit: Photo © Noom Peerapong on Unsplash