India-born Deepa Mehta, director of the Canadian drama film “Funny Boy,” co-wrote the script based on the popular 1994 novel by Shyam Selvadurai about the coming of age of a gay Tamil youth in Sri Lanka.
Mehta added a line of her own near the end of the movie: “Here, we are all free slaves.”
“I have to take credit for this because it is not in the book,” Mehta said. “For me, it’s the most important line in the film.”
The story unfolds against the backdrop of the mounting tension between Tamil and Sinhalese people before the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983 and was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing which handles the worldwide distribution.
Though much of the novel is autobiographical, Mehta said the story felt like her own.
Mehta has lived in Toronto for years, but still carries with her the shock of arriving in Canada from Southeast Asia in the dead of winter, which becomes the fate of some characters in the film. Although she did not arrive as a refugee like those characters, she recalls the sting of the intolerance that is a central theme in “Funny Boy.”
“When you come here as a colored immigrant, from a race that has been decimated, to ‘white’ country, yes you are free, whether it’s Canada or America or somewhere that has not had a sectarian war,” Mehta told TheWrap’s Joe McGovern as part of TheWrap Awards and International Screening Series. “But you will never be free of preconceptions that the general public has about you … you are supposed to be servile if you come here, and so grateful.”
Added Mehta: “I think of myself as a realist, and I think that if you are a realist you can’t just ignore what’s happening in the world right now. Specifically right now, for me, doing ‘Funny Boy,’ it’s not just about the war, it’s not just about a queer coming-of-age film, it’s about intolerance.”
In December, “Funny Boy” was rejected by the Academy Awards as Canada’s International Film entry because it contains too much English-language dialogue and has been submitted in the Best Picture and other general categories. In its place, Canada submitted Jean-Philippe Duval’s “14 Days, 12 Nights.”
Even though “Funny Boy” explores dark topics including war and genocide, Mehta found the light and innocence behind the love story of the teenage Arjie — played by two different actors as a child and as a teenager — and his schoolmate. And for their love theme, she decided she had to have Sting’s 1983 mega-hit “Every Breath You Take.”
“After the young boys are in bed together, what would they do? I said, ‘Yeah, let them dance to it,'” Mehta said with a laugh. She acknowledged the actors weren’t crazy about the idea at first but they acquiesced.
“We just played the music and they started improvising,” she said. “It’s one of the most magical scenes, we were really lucky.”
The filmmakers were also lucky that they were able to persuade Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, to ask her husband if they could use a version of the song and got the rights “for peanuts … it would have (cost) the budget of the whole film.”
She confirmed that Sting has seen “Funny Boy” but has not offered his thoughts.
“I didn’t hear from Sting, but heard that Trudie loved it,” Mehta said.