‘Funny Boy’ Filmmaker Deepa Mehta Wants You to Smell Sri Lanka


From her groundbreaking Elements Trilogy to “Funny Boy,” her gorgeous new queer coming-of-age tale currently streaming on Netflix, Deepa Mehta makes films to delight all of the senses. For her immersive adaptation of Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s beloved novel “Funny Boy,” Mehta kept one particular sense in mind: “I want people to smell ‘Funny Boy.’ You should smell it, smell the palm trees, you can smell the water.”

Raised in New Delhi and living in Toronto since 1973, the lauded Indo-Canadian filmmaker’s body of work spans globally in location and subject matter. Mehta is best known for her Elements Trilogy (the origin of that name are a mystery to her), which includes the controversial lesbian romance “Fire” (1996), the Partition era family drama “Earth” (1999), and the Oscar-nominated “Water” (2005). India submitted the film for the 2007 foreign-language Oscar, and this year submitted “Funny Boy,” but the Academy deemed it ineligible because it used too much English, accepting backup entry, “14 Days, 12 Nights,” instead. Mehta’s film is, however, still eligible to compete in other categories, including Best Picture.

Mehta’s socially-conscious themes have ignited controversy and violent protest in India, as well as government censorship. The love scenes between two women in “Fire” led to the destruction of movie theaters; and “Water” took years to complete after Hindu mobs destroyed the film’s Ganges River sets, forcing Mehta to shoot in Sri Lanka instead.

“Funny Boy,” which follows a wealthy Tamil boy’s coming of age amidst escalating Sinhala-Tamil tensions, is no less provocative than Mehta’s previous work. The queerness of the story is certainly taboo in Sri Lanka, where it is still illegal to be openly LGBTQ. But it was the film’s portrayal of the 1983 riots, a vicious anti-Tamil pogrom known as Black July, that had to be treated with the utmost delicacy.

“Sri Lanka is not very different from the rest of the world,” Mehta said during a recent video interview. “We’re all struggling with identity and we’re all struggling with trying to heal because there’s so much hatred and divisiveness around.”