By Sirish Rao
Nearly 25 years ago, Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta released Fire, a film that proved as incandescent as its name. When it hit the screens in her motherland, India, it would be the first time a mainstream film explored and presented homosexual love: two sisters-in-law (played by noted actors Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) in a traditional Delhi household fall in love with each other.
India produces and consumes more films than any other country on earth, but Fire took on a subject so taboo, that it resulted in a death threat for Mehta and violent protests and vandalism at cinema halls where it was showing.
After all, few things are more threatening to the patriarchy than women saying they don’t need men. It caused uproars in Parliament, with some right-wing politicians claiming the film was an insult to Hindu tradition and an attack on the sanctity of the institution of marriage.
It also was a major box office success, spurring a civil movement in support of queer rights and free speech, with men and women holding candlelight protests in front of cinema halls, and insisting the film continue to be screened.
Fire would go on to win a slew of awards and remains a landmark film that continues to be discussed.
At around the same time, just over 25 years ago, another Canadian of South Asian origin—Sri Lanka–born novelist Shyam Selvadurai—released his evocative coming-of-age novel Funny Boy, about growing up gay in Sri Lanka during the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict—one of the country’s most turbulent and deadly periods.
It too, was a rarity, questioning brown masculinity and making a space for brown, queer love. It went on to win a “Lammy” (as the Lambda Literary Award for Gay fiction is called).
Last week, fans of Mehta and Selvadurai were delighted to see an announcement from another path-breaker, Ava Du Vernay, whose incredible directorial work includes the films 13th and Selma.
Du Vernay tweeted that her distribution house ARRAY was set to release Funny Boy on Netflix on December 10: “When you get to distribute the latest feature film from one of your cinematic heroes, it is a good day. Wow. An honor. A dream.”
ARRAY is dedicated to the amplification of independent films by people of colour and women filmmakers globally and Du Vernay describes it as "more a call to action than a business".
I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Deepa Mehta to watch a preview of the film, and we spoke on Zoom afterwards.
I reached her in New Delhi, where she went to be with her inspirational 95-year-old mother, who has had to suspend her regular game of bridge with her friends because of the pandemic and is thrilled to have Deepa with her in this time of isolation. What follows is an excerpt of our conversation.
Sirish Rao: Deepa, every time I see a film released on this side of the planet that features a cast comprised almost entirely of brown people, I realize how rare that is. And of course, it is set in Sri Lanka, a part of the world that gets very little representation, and it’s a story of brown queer love. Isn’t it odd that in 2020, even representation of these worlds is a rarity?
Deepa Mehta: What can I say? In a way all of my films are about being brown. And my brownness is not just a feature of my being a visible minority in Canada. It started from childhood in India, where there’s plenty of shadism.
I saw it first-hand growing up. My mother, who had an arranged marriage with my father, was considered too dark by her mother-in-law. People would look at me as a young girl and say “Oh, she’s a bit too brown—who’ll marry her? Poor thing”.
See how much is packed into that sentence? It’s about our colonial masters and our desire to emulate them, to be them in every way. What a legacy…
But in terms of the narrative, for me, whether it was Fire or Earth, it is always about what do you do with the oppression of thought? What do you do with the repression of a fact? Why don’t we talk about things?
In terms of Funny Boy, and my work, well I just feel it’s about time we owned our narrative. For too long South Asia has been a backdrop for the western gaze—something exotic out of a tourist brochure (when it’s not about the slums) or it’s all about Bollywood and yoga. And you know what these narratives do—they reduce us to preconceptions.
I’m tired of that, I’ve always wanted to show what we are also about—which is complexity. I don’t want to be denied my history, which is that of a complex being, and yes, sometimes that history is devastating. It took me a while (and a lot of people of my generation certainly feel it) to break free of the need to speak to the white gaze. Was it Brecht who said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”? That’s how I see my work.
SR: In many ways this is also a Canadian story—both you and Shyam are celebrated Canadian artists. It’s also great to see people like Agam Darshi from Vancouver (who just won a Leo Award), and Ali Kazmi from Toronto playing major roles. Rashmi Varma, who did the costumes. And of course, there are many Sri Lankan actors, advisors and crew members. How has the Sri Lankan reaction been to the film?
DM: First of all, I’m not pretending for a minute that I’m Sri Lankan. But I think it’s really really important that this wasn’t made by a white person, who more often than not get to be the storytellers.
It wasn’t so long ago that the parts of brown people were played by white people—this is not Alec Guinness in Passage to India in brownface.
This film was a project where some of us who are not Sri Lankan are helping to tell a Sri Lankan story. A story that because it is deeply local, becomes a universal one. So the non-Sri Lankan actors did their best to learn Tamil and Sinhala for their roles. It’s not always perfect spoken, but imagine how ridiculous if everyone spoke in English, as often happens when you make a film for a global audience?
I’m proud of the fact that 50 percent of this film is not in English. We took a lot of advice and guidance along the way, from local writers, speech guides. And once the film was done, I decided the first audience should be Sri Lankans.
So we hosted underground screenings in the homes of the actors—and such a huge cross-section of people came. There were Tamils, Sinhalese, Burghers, young, old, human right activists, LGBTQ activists, cricketers, grandmothers, students. And what was amazing, is that the overwhelming thing they felt, was the power of seeing themselves on screen. Their lives, their history, their beloved, violent land.
I’ve had people in the Sri Lankan diaspora say how it’s the story of their own life. There’s a deep personal resonance. And you know, that personal resonance is also for others who are not Sri Lankan—people from Palestine and Egypt who’ve said that they know what it feels like to leave a homeland behind about which they have mixed emotions. To come to Canada, and find their sexual identity, but give up their cultural identity.
SR: Of course, the film will speak in very particular way to Sri Lankans, but I think there’s a clue to watching it in the film itself, when an English teacher is speaking to his class about Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. The cities in the book are, of course, London and Paris, but he tells his students that a tale of two cities could really be anywhere. Colombo, or inside your own head…
It struck me while watching the film, that yourself and people like Agam and Ali, who play big roles, all have families who know the brutality of the partition of India. It’s a different context from Sri Lanka but you know what lost homelands feel like.
DM: Partition. And the scars. The deep, old scars.
SR: Yes, and it got me thinking that all of these huge histories that affect our personal lives—the partition of India, the Sri Lankan civil war, the creation of Canada (and the United States), which are based on the genocide of Indigenous peoples—these were all part of the same massive and violent colonial project.
And speaking of the wounds of the colonial project, the United States is in the midst of a massive civil rights movement for Black lives.
How meaningful is it to you personally, and in the larger political context that Ava Du Vernay’s ARRAY is releasing your work?
DM: It is huge. And I was so moved by her interest, which was thanks to Agam’s introduction. An absolute no-brainer of a decision to go with ARRAY.
For every film that one does, you ask “what is the appropriate home for this?” This is unquestionably the home for Funny Boy. I am so glad that at this moment in history, that Ava has chosen to distribute our Brown film. I’ve not had to have any of those weird conversations where I’m asked “they’re not speaking with an Indian accent—is that authentic?”
Because of course, the right Indian accent is Peter Sellers' or the one that Apu has in The Simpsons. Orientalism 101. So yes. Just so happy and so honoured to be with ARRAY. And she’s such a great filmmaker herself. So amazing.
SR: Funny Boy is essentially a bildungsroman about Arjie, who is coming to terms with his sexuality at the same time he is becoming aware of the political and ethnic divisions in his country. The people who make any sort of space for him at all are rebellious women—his mother and his aunt. And the people who you centre in the film are usually the ones who have to hide or are actively silenced—queer folks and rebellious women.
DM: I’m so glad you saw that! Yes, it’s about the people who are silenced. But it’s also about strong, compassionate women. What a power compassion can be!
Arjie’s aunty Radha is amazing. Someone saw the film and said “everyone needs an aunty Radha in their life”. And I want one too! I want an aunty Radha.
SR: Deepa, for me and for so many people, you are that!
I asked Agam Darshi who actually plays aunty Radha in Funny Boy about what the film meant to her and she said: “I had read the script countless times, and chatted with the actors and Deepa at length about character, story, themes, and history. And yet there was nothing quite like that visceral moment of sitting and watching the film, and seeing two, young, beautiful brown men fall in love, that made me truly understand the importance of THIS film.
"I realized that I had never seen this before. I had never seen THEM before. And I had never witnessed a love like this on screen. We live in an age of images. And yet some images are not given space, like two, beautiful, brown men falling in love: Shades of brown, with no need to be explained through a white gaze. All people want to be seen and heard, and to finally—FINALLY have a space where we can witness and rejoice in powerful, positive, progressive images like this one is the gift that Deepa offers to the world through her films.”
For so many South Asian folks who work in the arts, who are storytellers, you are one of the handful of people on whose shoulders we stand. I remember how meaningful it was for Earth and Water to be in the running for the Academy Awards. It’s staggering that it’s so rare, that in 2020 people who make up a good chunk of the world’s population are still just asking for representation on global forums.