A coming-of-age (and out-of-the-closet) story set against ongoing political turmoil, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy manages to side-step melodrama but doesn’t entirely avoid the trap of predictability. Mehta gets so many things right that the end result is well worth your time. Funny Boy may not be all that funny, but it’s certainly heartfelt, beautifully shot, and slickly produced.
Taking place in mid-to-late 1970’s Colombo, Sri Lanka, Mehta’s film follows the trials and tribulations of Arjie (played by Arush Nand as a child and Brandon Ingram as a young adult). When little Arjie appears in full drag, a guest wryly comments, “Looks like you have a ‘funny one’ here.” This upsets Arjie’s family, so the boy is consequently forced to do “manly” things, like play cricket with the other kids. That is, until a kindly angel, Arjie’s Canadian aunt Radha (Agam Darshi), comes into his life and tells him it’s okay to be himself. His hidden, painted toes soon become his “joyful secret.”
“…Arjie appears in full drag…This upsets Arjie’s family, so the boy is consequently forced to do ‘manly’ things…”
Rays of anxiety penetrate the idyllic veneer. Radha’s taboo love affair with a Sinhalese man – she’s Tamil – leads to her being exiled, then stabbed on a train by an anti-Tamil mob. Radha soon goes through an arranged marriage and, before Arjie knows it, the one person who understood him is gone out of his life. We skip to a grown-up Arjie, sent to a boarding school “to assimilate.” He falls for Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), and just when things seem to turn idyllic again, violence seeps back into the film’s somber ending, along with a small glimmer of hope.
Mehta skillfully navigates both the tender sequences and the more devastating ones. Aided by Howard Shore’s rousing musical score, she portrays a beautiful country ripped apart by social violence. Her film serves as an ode to those who either died or were forced into exile for having the courage to express their true identities. Mehta displays how one can overcome cultural clashes and how a little human kindness can change a young man’s life. She studies how family tradition may become a burden one has to overcome.
Perhaps some of the themes aren’t exactly novel (see: Alexandre Moratto’s superior Socrates), but the colorful locations, vividly captured by cinematographer Douglas Koch – a train careening along a beach, a gorgeous sepia sunset – add a dash of spice to a familiar story. Mehta knows her way around a memorable scene: Arjie throwing up after an awkward dinner, or violence erupting on the streets after tender lovemaking. Already picked by Ava DuVernay‘s company, Funny Boy may just become the sleeper hit of 2021.
"…the colorful locations... add a dash of spice to a familiar story."