Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing has acquired the highly-anticipated dramatic feature Funny Boy directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta. The film is based on the best-selling Canadian novel by Shyam Selvadurai and will open theatrically in select cities and debut on Netflix on December 10.
Mehta is best known for her trilogy element-title trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). She co-wrote Funny Boy with Selvaduri. The film was shot on location and set in Sri Lanka in the ’70s and ’80s and explores the awakening of sexual identity by a young boy named Arjie (portrayed by Arush Nand and Brandon Ingram). As political tensions escalate to a boiling point between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, a young boy comes of age in a society and family that doesn’t embrace difference outside of societal norms. The film chronicles Arjie’s struggle to find balance and self-love despite the absence of empathy and understanding.
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“My mantra as a filmmaker has always been what one of the great filmmakers of all times, Luis Bunuel said: ‘When a film is particular, that’s the very minute it becomes universal’, said Mehta. “Funny Boy, set on the island of Sri Lanka in the middle of its long and bloody civil war, is also a film about the power of love. In many ways, Funny Boy reflects the times of divisiveness we are living in today, where the call for a just society, a call for humanity is finally being heard.”
She continued, “Having ARRAY Releasing by our side feels like Funny Boy has found not only a safe home during these tumultuous times but also a home that shimmers with hope for all who ARRAY welcomes in.”
“Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy builds upon the iconic filmmaker’s provocative canon of work as a film that is beautiful to the eye and emotional for the heart,” said DuVernay and ARRAY President Tilane Jones in a joint statement. “Her singular vision for adapting this best-selling novel invites film lovers to delve deep into themes of identity, acceptance and family, while she shares the majesty and turmoil of Sri Lanka during this particular time in history. We are honored to share Ms. Mehta’s latest cinematic gem with fans and film lovers and we cherish our time working alongside this exceptionally talented director.”
The acquisition of Funny Boy was negotiated by Gordon Bobb of Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Finkelstein and Lezcano on behalf of ARRAY and Lon J. Hall of Hall Webber LLP on behalf of Ms. Mehta.
Funny Boy adds to ARRAY Releasing’s 2020 slate which includes Stephanie Turner’s Justine, Simon Frederick’s They’ve Gotta Have Us, Numa Perrier’s Jezebel, Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca and Residue from Merawi Gerima. Most recently, ARRAY acquired the distribution rights to Takeshi Fukunaga’s Ainu Mosir, which marks the second film from the director under the ARRAY banner.
Deadline spoke with Mehta about her upcoming film Funny Boy and how women of color can possibly dominate this year’s award season.
DEADLINE: How do you think ARRAY’S mission aligns with Funny Boy?
DEEPA MEHTA: Bertolt Brecht famously said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” For me ARRAY is that hammer. Going with ARRAY was a no brainer. Funny Boy is a love story but it is also a film about the oppression of minorities – whether it be fomented by sexuality, race or culture. ARRAY is a champion of pushing films they believe in and for me their fundamental belief is striving for equality and ensuring voices that have been oppressed get heard.
DEADLINE: What challenges did you come across when adapting Funny Boy into a full-length feature?
MEHTA: Funny Boy is based on a beloved book of the same name by Shyam Selvadurai, a Sinhalese/Tamil/ Canadian novelist. Even though the book is popular and taught at universities in Sri Lanka, when it came time to make it into a film we faced massive resistance from the authorities. The producer David Hamilton and I, along with the film team (our local Sri Lankan Producer) spent nearly a year trying to get permission to film the script. It was rejected twice by the government agency that green lights ‘ foreign’ films. We got lucky with some key allies like David McKinnon and Asoka Handagama, who became staunch supporters and never let us give up. David, Canada’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, is also the purveyor of great martinis, which really helped on some rather grim evenings.
Once we were green lit the shoot was pretty much smooth sailing. I feel it was the sectarian aspect of the script more than the gay one that caused the Government to balk, even though homosexuality is still illegal in Sr Lanka.
DEADLINE: How did it speak to you personally?
MEHTA: Funny Boy speaks to me on many levels. As a woman of colour trying to be heard, as a minority in a country that is largely white, and, as with so many others, someone who struggles to own my own narrative (though I am so grateful that Canada is actually sincere in trying to be inclusive). But mostly Funny Boy resonates with me because it speaks to the times we find ourselves in. The populist divisiveness of Trump, Boris Johnson, Erdojan, Balsonaro , Duterte and their ilk is appalling.
DEADLINE: How do you think Funny Boy speaks to the representation of the South Asian community in film and TV?
MEHTA: Funny Boy is a South Asian film. It’s written by a south Asian, directed by one and all its actors are south Asian. It’s about “US.” When I see it I see myself, and not some caricature of what is expected of us- sing song accents, Bollywood dancing (which is fun but certainly not representative of all of us) yoga and head stands. I don’t want us to ever be deprived of our complexity. Orientalist 101 I guess.
DEADLINE: 2020 is a challenging year, to say the least, but with Funny Boy, Regina King’s One Night In Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, women of color are thriving when it comes to film and there is hope that these films will be taking the spotlight during awards season. What does it mean to you to be part of a movement of inclusion? At the same time, how do you keep expectations at bay considering the history of women and people of color — specifically filmmakers — being excluded at the Oscars?
MEHTA: Hurrah for women filmmakers of color. I feel humbled but also fulfilled by the great company Funny Boy finds itself in. To be a part of inclusion? About time I say – And as for keeping expectations at bay, My dad who was a film distributor in India, gave me some solid advice when I decided to chuck academia in favour of film making – He said, ”Go ahead, but remember there are two things in life you will never know. One is when you will die and the other is how a film will be received.” Wise words. So you see I learned very early on to limit my expectations.