'Funny Boy': Oscar entry uses music as proxy for real intimacy in gay love story by director Deepa Mehta
In Deepa Mehta's 'Funny Boy', Canada's Oscar entry for 'Best International Film', the romantic connection that springs up between the Tamil schoolboy Arjun "Arjie" Chelvaratnam (Brandon Ingram) and his Sinhalese classmate Shehan Soyza (Rehan Mudannayake) is doubly forbidden. Firstly, because it is queer and secondly, because they are ignoring the hatred spilling out on the streets between the Sinhalese language majority and the Tamil language minority in the country.
Both Arjie and Shehan are choosing to love each other despite the societal barriers of language and acceptable sexuality. And yet, none of that tension comes across on screen. Despite the centrality of the gay love story nestled in the larger canvas of the Sri Lankan civil war, their onscreen exchanges make you wonder if you are watching a bad Bollywood film where the lovers exchange a few glances, promptly fall in love and then sing and dance together.
Music can make or break a movie because a soundscape is so evocative -- it conveys so much about not just the characters but also the time period. English pop and rock numbers are intrinsic to the connection between Arjie and Shehan as they imitate David Bowie's pose and bond over songs they both love and hum together -- English songs transcend their language differences in a way.
Now if only this bonding over music was supplemented with good dialogue and the chemistry of body language in their scenes, this romance would have come to life. Instead, Brandon Ingram as Arjie and Rehan Mudannayake as Shehan, both first-time actors, look like they have been left to emote without any notes from the director Deepa Mehta. They look awkward in each other's presence even as they give each other shy smiles or hold hands.
We are also given placeholder dialogue. The first time Arjie visits Shehan in his gigantic mansion, Shehan mentions his absent father and how he is mostly left alone in the vast, palatial bungalow with a caretaker. Instead of the dialogue exploring his loneliness or Arjie dialing into Shehan's feelings, they quickly move on to discussing pro tennis moves and then David Bowie.
Neither has really told each other they are gay, though each suspects the other might be. And then out of the blue, Shehan says, "they are all mostly gay," pointing to the pictures of Queen and Bowie, "like us". Seconds later, they are making out on Shehan's bed. This escalation from confession to intimacy is so abrupt that it comes across as forced and fake. Till then, all the boys have done is sit together in class and read from the same textbook.
The most awkward scene of all is when both boys rock out to Police's 'Every breath you take' naked in the gigantic hall of Shehan's bungalow. Within the film, it is supposed to be this euphoric moment of celebration -- of fitting in, of being happy, or finally belonging to someone -- before tragedy strikes in the form of a Sinhalese mob out to kill "Tamil terrorists".
But both men, as first-time actors, are incapable of pulling out that kind of performance on their own, making the lack of direction quite jarring. Instead of reveling with them in their moment of freedom and passion, you cringe because you realize just how uncomfortable the actors look doing that scene.
In contrast, the earlier scenes with the kids during Arjie's childhood come across as much more real -- so Deepa Mehta is obviously capable of giving direction to kids or is just better at directing non-romantic scenes.
In the end, Mehta essentially relies on familiar music as a proxy for real chemistry between the two male leads. There is almost no real dialogue between the two in the nearly two-hour film. What little dialogue there is, is asinine and badly paced. Their conversations in no way resemble how normal people talk, let alone two people in love.
Director Deepa Mehta fills their awkward silences and lack of chemistry with music hoping it will act as a shorthand to a real, fully realized relationship. Alas! Music can do a lot of things but it can't be a substitute for acting and dialogue.
'Funny Boy' is available to stream on Netflix from December 10.