Interview: Deepa Mehta on Raising a Brave One with “Funny Boy”

It had taken a year to get the proper approvals from Sri Lankan authorities to film “Funny Boy” in author Shyam Selvadurai’s homeland, though Deepa Mehta had been through this before. Never one to shrink from controversial material, the director hadn’t blinked when the opportunity arose to adapt Selvadurai’s acclaimed novel about a young man named Arjie discovering his sexuality as his family faced its own persecution as Tamils living alongside the Sinhalese in Colombo, and while the book had been embraced to the point of being taught at universities, it was no sure thing that “Funny Boy” would get the green light when homosexuality is still punishable by law in the country.

Ironically, Mehta had found a safe haven for her 1996 drama “Fire” in Sri Lanka when the lesbian romance at its center made it impossible to film in its intended setting of India and it was during that time she first read “Funny Boy,” ultimately producing a radio dramatization of it in her and Selvadurai’s adopted home of Canada. But over the years, a film version proved much tougher to crack when she wasn’t onboard, in and out of development as the distinctive structure of the book, broken up into six vignettes, made it as creatively daunting as it was likely to be politically. Not only was Mehta worth waiting for as one of the few filmmakers who could be trusted with permission to film in Colombo, where she had also shot her 2012 adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” but to do justice to the material as she exquisitely draws a parallel between her young protagonist who feels the need to hide his true identity from his family as they have the same impulse as they face increasing hostility outside of their comfort of their home, seen by those of Sinhalese roots to be proof of the great wealth inequality between ethnicities.

Beautifully shot with a looseness inside the compound where one is always aware of the walls that can be seen as either a protective border or an inhibiting partition, “Funny Boy” locates the warmth inside Arjie’s story from being a boy (Arush Nand) looked upon with skepticism by some in his family as he’s apt to wear dresses and put on makeup, helped by an encouraging aunt (Agam Darshi), to evolving into an increasingly confident young man (Brandon Ingram) as he starts to carve out an identity for himself at school. Working from a script co-written with Selvadurai, Mehta brings a delicate touch to conveying the small, subtle ways Arjie grows into his own person and the film, recently anointed as Canada’s official selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, unfolds as a truly lovely coming-of age story.

On the eve of “Funny Boy”’s debut this week on Netflix thanks to ARRAY Now, Mehta spoke about how she was able to elicit such tender performances from her actors and bring together a number of complex elements into a drama of such direct and uncomplicated power.

How did this come about?

It’s very strange. I was in the pre-production stages of “Fire” and I actually rang up the writer’s agent and I said I’m very interested in getting [the film rights to “Funny Boy”] and she said, “Too bad. It’s gone.” So then I forgot about it. [laughs] And then 24 years later, I get a call from the writer, a wonderful young man named Shyam and his agent — I think it’s another one — who said, “There’s a script that Shyam has written based on the book and he would like you to read it.” I was intrigued because I thought I remembered it and it had made a huge impact on me, and I was surprised that 24 years later, no one had made it into a film. And Stephen, I got the script and it was 250 pages long! [laughs]

I read it and what really moved me was Shyam’s desire that somebody do it that had read Sinhalese. I talked to him and I said politely, “How would you feel if we worked on the script together?” And he was so open to it. The reason I felt I wanted to do it now is that in many ways, what it reflected about today’s world really moved me about the rise of nationalist populism and divisiveness and incredible hatred that has been accepted — whether it’s through social media or through other countries — about people other than ourselves. It just felt very contemporary and it reflected a world where there is such an oppression of minorities, whether it’s sexuality or culture.

What was it like collaborating with Shyam? I know you’ve collaborated a few times with the original author and it must be interesting making something yours while maintaining the original author’s vision.

I’ve collaborated with three authors and all of them have been different. The first was Bapsi Sidhwa, a wonderful writer who lives in Houston and is Pakistani, and she wrote a book called “Ice Candy Man,” which became a film that I did [“Earth”] and working with her, she said, “Here’s my book. You write the script and when you’re finished, send it to me. I’m really happy for you to do it.” She was all trusting, so I wrote the script and and about a day after I sent it, I get a call from her and she said, “Deepa, where are the last two chapters of the book?” [laughs] And you’re like, “My God…” and I explained why that didn’t work cinematically. She understood why, but I think for her it was a bit of a shock what needs perhaps repetition in a book, we could do it cinematically without too much indulgence. The relationship with Salman Rushdie [on “Midnight Children”] was very different. We had to trust each other and we did and he’s an extremely generous man. That was a true collaboration in many ways.

On “Funny Boy,” once Shyam and I finished writing the script together, I think he trusted me cinematically. He’s East Tamil and Sinhalese – his father is Tamil and his mother in Sinhalese — and I think he’s very secure about his own story and how important it was for him in Sri Lanka to come out and to belong to two cultures, which are actually fighting each other, and he’s a part of both. He realized that perhaps something as simple as showing in cinema is much better than talking about it, so there are many silences in “Funny Boy” and he understood that.

You tell the story so brilliantly visually – there’s a lot of freedom of camera movement within spaces, but you can often see the limits. How early did that style come to you?

What happens is once we finish writing the script, I put it away for a couple of weeks. I’m sure everybody does that. This is not rocket science, but when I put my director’s hat on, it becomes completely different. The first thing that I see when I put that hat on, and I don’t want to sound melodramatic or obscure, is to say, “What are the colors of this film?” Then for me, it stops being a script and it becomes the colors. The colors that I saw for “Funny Boy” were orca, the green of the palm trees, the blue of the sea, the red of blood — those are what actually decide how the design and the camerawork will be like. The camera for me always had to be motivated by the space the actors were in – so that was extremely important. Actors dictated the camera moves, not the other way around, so we didn’t set it up and say, “Now you come here and hit your mark there.” I always wanted to see the tropical paradise beyond the walls because to lose paradise is inevitable. But I wanted that awareness for the camera to be there.

It’s interesting to hear you do the camerawork around the actors and how they inspire you – did anything happen you might not have been expecting, but you really like that’s in the film?

I feel very strongly that to work with talented actors is a true gift, but if the talented actors are also intelligent, then it’s really icing on the cake. It’s fabulous because that’s when they bring you something you did not even expect, whether it’s a small movement or a gesture of a hand or turning their back to camera. I love it. It was that kind of self-motivation because they’re so deeply entrenched in their character, and I do workshops for at least two weeks before we start shooting and the workshops are very intense. They aren’t about the script. They’re about character. So once they are rooted in their character, then you can take liberties as actors and as a director, you know immediately if it’s a false note for the character.

Is it difficult to create a fluid story when you’re relying on multiple actors to play one character?

I have worked with lots of kid actors who grow older and what’s important is that they have the same spirit and the same facial structure. But it’s the eyes. Little Arjie’s eyes and older Arjie’s eyes, it was so important that their expression are very similar because that’s where you see what’s happening inside Arjie. I could’ve had the same skin tone or the same [manner], but if I didn’t have the eyes that were as expressive as young Arjie and older Arjie similarity between those, I think it would’ve been very difficult to pull it off.

You’ve said Vittorio de Sica’s “The Garden of the Fintzi-Continis” was an influence, which relies on having a strong central location. Was it difficult to find such a home for the family?

It wasn’t. I’ve shot two films in Sri Lanka before, “Water” and “Midnight’s Children,” so I’m really well-acquainted with the crew, the cast and the locations that are available. We had a fabulous production designer from Sri Lanka and like I said, I was heavily influenced by De Sica and “The Garden of the Fintzi-Continis” – the privileged, established family that feels in some form that their wealth is going to protect them. In “Fintzi-Continis,” they end up in a classroom and you know where they’re going to go from there, and this family, who felt their wealth would protect them, end up in a snowy Toronto, so everything is ephemeral in that sense.

You finished this up during COVID when it must’ve been hard to meet up to do post-production. What was it like getting to the finish line?

Oh my God. It was so painful. [laughs] This is the most challenging post-production I’ve ever had because we were here in Toronto — we caught the last flight back before the lockdown — and my editor was in Madrid. Then the actors were in Sri Lanka, one was in Bombay, one was here, and one was in Vancouver, so they were all spread all over. We were supposed to go back to Sri Lanka to do all the post-sound because location sound, it really isn’t great because there’s a huge racket [when shooting on location] — the people, the crew, the traffic – you can’t ever control it. Unless you shoot in a studio, it’s impossible. So for all our films, we’ve had to go back to the studio and dub, and [during COVID] it was terrible because you had actors sitting in the middle of the night in their closets with their cell phones, giving us temp lines because we couldn’t reach them. So it’s been the longest post-production we’ve ever had to do because it was only in the last month that we could actually get the actors in studios and coach them in proper Tamil and do the mix finally. It’s been four months of sound, which usually takes six weeks. You can imagine.

“Funny Boy” is now streaming on Netflix.