Deepa Mehta’s had her fair share of tough shoots. “Water” had to be moved from India following protests and lensed in Sri Lanka, but she never had one that was affected by a pandemic.
“Funny Boy,” released by Ava DuVernay’s Array, is streaming on Netflix. Mehta, who has filmed a couple of other movies in Sri Lanka, loved the book by Shyam Selvadurai, a gay coming of age story between two teens — one a Tamil and one Sinhalese — set against the Sri Lankan civil war between the two groups.
Mehta had to make three trips to the capital of Columbo to get permission to shoot. “It took one year.”
But the delay surprised her. “The book has been out for 22 years or more, and it’s a book that’s taught today at Columbo University. It’s a very popular book that’s been also translated into Sinhalese [the language spoken by the majority of the Sri Lankan population]. It’s quite interesting and one they are very proud of. So we thought we wouldn’t have any problems at all, and Shyam is well known there.”
But the authorities denied them permission to shoot it locally. “You just can’t go to a country and start shooting. You have to get permission from the National Film Corp. of Sri Lanka. They said, ‘Certainly not.’ I stood for hours outside that office, it was ridiculous, with our local producer who had produced ‘Water’ and stuff like that,” she says referring to her 2005 film. “They said, ‘You can’t shoot,’ but they wouldn’t tell us why.”
It turned out the gay theme was the issue, not the references to the country’s decades-long civil war, that touched on a taboo topic.
“Once we got the permission, we had to be discreet. We shot most of the film outside Columbo in the suburbs.”
“Not only did I know a lot of people, cast and crew from Columbo, but I also made friends there. Being from India, they are not dissimilar, especially the Tamilians,” she says.
Mehta doesn’t speak Tamil or Sinhalese, neither does co-scripter Selvadurai. “Not only is their Tamil different, it is different in every area, so Jaffna Tamil is very different from Colombo Tamil. It’s like, I am from the Punjab and my Hindi is so different from the Hindi that people speak in Mumbai.”
Using a casting agency in Sri Lanka , Mehta also depended on Selvadurai to help her find her stars. Not only did he run the Galle Literary Festival, his mother is Sinhalese and his father is a Tamilian. Plus, “he’s gay, so he introduced me to a lot of actors that he knew from the theater,” she says.
Homosexuality is still a crime in Sri Lanka, “so it’s not like everybody came running and said, ‘We want to be in this film,’” she says, “especially if you are Tamil.”
With the civil war being part of the country’s not-too-distant past, gay Tamils feared death if they were open about their sexuality. “It’s not easy,” she says.
“It was very brave of Brandon [Ingram, the star] and I’m so grateful that he did it.” While she is sorry she couldn’t find a Tamil Sri Lankan to play the part, Mehta says it was more important to her to find a gay actor.
“That’s what the point of acting is, your personality inhabits another person. That’s what engages me in this moment.”
Post-production was held up by the pandemic, including ADR. From her home in Toronto, she was in constant communication with the editor Teresa Font in Spain and the dialogue re-recording in Sri Lanka.
But while the pandemic killed a theatrical release, the film is reaching worldwide audiences on Netflix. Still Mehta had one more disappointment. Canada sent the film as its submission for the international film Oscar, but the Academy rejected “Funny Boy” as having too much English dialogue. Mehta’s “Water” had drawn an Oscar nom for foreign-language film. Still the film is eligible in other categories including adapted screenplay and best picture.
“You don’t think, when you are making a film, ‘We are going to send it to the Oscars,’ you make [the film]. I was really surprised that they said there wasn’t enough Tamil. That was the reason.”
“It was a struggle to make it, so I wasn’t thinking of the Oscars really. People seem to like the film. … So that’s OK, we move on.”