Set in Sri Lanka in the 70s and 80s, Funny Boy begins as a gay coming-of-age drama, and it is that, but it’s also the story of the violent Sinhalese/Tamil ethnic tensions that came to boiling point during this period in a very bloody Civil War that lasted for decades. The central character Arjie (Arush Nand) is only 8 when the film starts, and he’s already pretty sure of his identity, though his family keeps trying to make him more “masculine.” But when his cool Aunt Radha comes home from Canada, ostensibly for an arranged marriage, she recognizes his spirit and encourages him to be himself. And frankly, he couldn’t be different if he tried.
He and Aunt Radha are kindred spirits and become besties. And despite her impending marriage, she falls in love with a Sinhalese man, which presents its own set of problems. Their wealthy family is part of the Tamil minority. But her boyfriend is of the majority Sinhalese population. And like Romeo and Juliet, their love is doomed to fail.
In the second part of his tale, Arjie (Brandon Ingram) is 17 and falls in love for the first time with, you guessed it, a Sinhalese boy (Rehan Mudannayake). And not only do to they have to hide their love because of the ethnic difference, but being gay is a crime. And their civil society is falling apart around them.
The through line of the story is Arjie’s coming-of-age, coming out, and falling in love. But the violence that is rending the country is front and center. It is frequently just a stone’s throw away from them, but Arjie and his family because of their wealth are mostly insulated from it, in the beginning. As the film progresses, it comes closer and closer and by the end the family is escaping with the help of kind Sinhalese neighbors from a crowd that plans to kill them.
I really liked this film. The characters were extremely well drawn. The intertwining of love and sexuality and politics was seamless. I aways like a movie where I learn something. While I remember hearing about the Tamil Tigers and about war in Sri Lanka, I’ll admit I didn’t really know that much about what and why. Funny Boy isn’t a history lesson so much as a front row seat to the bloody period. I highly recommend it.
In Tamil, Sinhalese, and English with subtitles. There has been pushback from the Tamil community because many of the actors in the film are not Tamil and butcher the language. Some of the film was over-dubbed with Tamil actors after the controversy.)
It’s the Official Oscar entry for Best International Feature for Canada, Indian Director Deepa Mehta’s adopted home.
Coming to Netflix Dec 10.