Funny Boy – is the film’s funny Tamil a cultural diplomacy fail?


Deepa Mehta wanted to tell Shyam Selvadurai’s story of a Tamil boy’s attraction to another. There is a hitch. The Tamil in Mehta’s screenplay is erratic, and she wants viewers to look past it.

Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta has turned Shyam Selvadurai’s globally acclaimed book Funny Boy into a movie. She minces no words claiming the movie is pro-Tamil and addresses the must-be-spoken about oppression of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. There is a catch, though. The erratic Tamil spoken in the film makes Mehta no different to an oppressor who triviliases Tamil.  

Mehta’s is no stranger to controversy. Her movies’ themes wrestle with matters most South Asian communities want swept under the carpet. Funny Boy is no different. However, for a movie that Mehta says ‘is Tamil’ it unapologetically ignores how Tamil is spoken in Sri Lanka, or in any other country. She considers her predominantly South Asian plots as Canadian films because Canada gives her the freedom to tell them. That freedom however is no free pass to plunder a language like has been in this movie under the watch of such a renowned movie maker.

Mehta has repeatedly thanked the High Commissioner of Canada to Sri Lanka David Mckinnon for his support in making the movie a reality. The movie could have been one of biggest cultural diplomacy success stories for Canada in Sri Lanka. Not anymore, not even if it wins the Oscars for best International Film, because it fails to represent Tamils right. No accolade the movie is slated to receive can justify the disregard accorded in getting the script’s Tamil right. Not unless it is fixed.

The movie is a big deal for many Sri Lankans who were part of it despite criticism that it does not cast any Tamil actors in key roles. During a zoom interview with an English daily, Mehta explains that most of the Tamils who auditioned refused to be part of the movie which addresses homosexuality. Mehta is entitled to cast anyone she wants. But, this near-irreversible language fail, gives credence to criticism that she should have gone with Tamil actors who could have alerted her that the Tamil in the movie is skewed. Such Tamil pronunciation is not found even in the sacred verse Thirukkural.  

The filmmaker noted that the movie is about building bridges. With this kind of Tamil, the inter-ethnic bridges Mehta prescribes could take too long to build. If a Chinese director in Mehta’s place had failed in Tamil nuance, Sri Lanka’s twitter would have polished up keyboards for attack. Many of Colombo’s movers and shakers who otherwise appear to put their neck on the line for the Tamils, painted social media red about how honoured they felt being invited to the movie’s private screenings. Have they not raised this strongly enough? Is their empathy for Tamils negligible when it is too inconvenient to confront?

One thing is clear, Mehta had no Tamil language specialist in the film’s technical team to scrutinise diction and phonetics. This is a colossal failure for an international production. What is unclear is if Mehta was not told that she needs to fix the Tamil. She has called for viewers to look at the larger picture and unite to voice out against the oppression of Tamils.

If Mehta’s idea of resistance takes a hit in the face of a commercial deadline which refuses to fix the anomaly her script has inflicted on the Tamil language, most of her empathetic rhetoric pre-release will end up ringing hollow post-release. However, hollow that is, the cancel culture may not be a fitting response to a cultural diplomacy fail of this magnitude. The only hope is that the flack the movie is receiving for its disdain for the language doesn’t takeover the memory the book left in its readers.  

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