The multi-hyphenate on growing her South Asian roots with Deepa Mehta’s ‘Funny Boy’ and why such stories need an audience
There’s plenty to be excited about filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s drama, Funny Boy. The coming-of-age story, of a boy growing up gay in Sri Lanka during the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, is Canada’s pick for the 93rd Oscars. Still weeks shy of release, it is on most ‘must-see’ lists. And the adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 award-winning novel is also cementing the popularity of South Asian storylines — coming as it does on the heels of the recent BBC production of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and ahead of the 2021 release of Aravid Adiga’s The White Tiger on Netflix.
Riding the buzz is the cast and crew, especially Agam Darshi, the Punjabi Sikh-Canadian actor who plays the protagonist Arjun Chelvaratnam’s (aka Arjie) aunt, Radha. The actor-writer-director-producer says she always knew she would work with Mehta; she just didn’t know when. The opportunity came with Funny Boy, after the Indo-Canadian director saw Darshi’s audition tape and said, “You caught something in Radha, and I couldn’t look away.”
A still from ‘Funny Boy’
Stories that need telling
Funny Boy is a complex story, with several themes running concurrently, including ideas of identity, self-worth, sexuality and displacement. Darshi, 33, is amazed that a 26-year-old novel — which is set in the 1970s and 80s — can resonate so acutely in 2020. “You think the world changes fast, but it doesn’t and that’s a shame,” says the mother of four-year-old twin boys, over a video call from Saskatchewan, Canada. “Homosexuality is still illegal in many parts of the world, criminalised in Sri Lanka, and a source of shame for South Asians all over the world. We are still struggling with these issues.”
Working with Deepa Mehta
- “She is a master at what she does, and as actors, we were terrified. Because she’s so good, she expects a lot from her actors. She also gives us so much in terms of the quality of scripts, language, and the world. She’s an actor’s director. Before we got on set for Funny Boy, we did an intensive three-day rehearsal. Effectively, you go in as actors and come out as the characters. On set, she doesn’t insist on a lot of takes. She knows what she wants. She never wants the acting or crying to be over the top. ‘No dukhi aatma,’ she says. She just wants life to play out. She comes across as so tough and, by the end, you realise that you are family.”
Slated to release on December 4 in Canada and internationally (in the US and the UK) on December 10, Darshi feels privileged to be “a part of exactly the kind of film the world needs right now”. She adds, “I had read the script several times, but really there’s nothing quite like watching two young, brown men fall in love on screen. It will make some people uncomfortable while others will feel that finally the world sees them.”
The award-winning Los Angeles-based actor, who has appeared in films such as Final Destination 3, Colossal, and Kingsway, describes her character, Radha, as spoiled, loving and loved. “Her journey is to impart love and excitement for life to Arjie,” she shares. “She comes from a Tamil upper class Christian household. Returning home to Colombo after studying in Toronto, she has seen the world in a different way. When Arjie’s entire family thinks he’s a funny boy, Radha doesn’t see anything wrong with him. She thinks he is perfect.”
Finding her own path
Born in Birmingham, UK, Darshi was three years old when she moved to Canada with her parents. She remembers the awe she felt when her parents took her to a drive-in theatre in Montreal, to watch The NeverEnding Story. “It was the first time that I felt the magic of film and storytelling,” she says, adding how, later on, she was drawn to stories like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. “Troublemakers always resonated with me,” says Darshi, who has an adventurous streak herself — most recently, she scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “I loved Jo March from Little Women because she didn’t do what was expected of her. I would have loved to play her, but I am not white,” she laughs.
- “When I was younger, I watched any film with Aamir Khan in it. He was so cute. He then developed into a wonderful, smart and thoughtful actor. Earth had a huge influence on me, especially seeing him cast differently. I also look up to Tabu and Irrfan Khan as artistes. For me, The Namesake was an important film. Though not popular, I also loved Dil Se.”
Growing up as a Sikh girl in Canada, however, she recalls how little of herself she saw in popular culture, “not even in the films of my favourite directors Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola and Woody Allen”. Rather than wait for the parts, Darshi did the next best thing. She wrote, produced and directed short films. She is a strong addition to the growing list of Indian American, British and Canadian actors — from Dev Patel and Mindy Kaling to Archie Punjabi and Ritu Arya — who are pushing the envelope today. Darshi is currently scouting locations for Indians in Cowtown, her feature film directorial debut, which she has written (one of six scripts accepted into the Whistler Film Festival’s Praxis Screenwriting Lab) and will also act in. “It is a dramedy with levity about family, forgiving and moving forward. It is inspired by the character-driven films I love.” She will also join the cast of Disney Channel’s original movie, Spin, in Toronto. She plays the mother of a South Asian girl who is a DJ, in the Manjari Makijany directorial.
A still from the film
Holding out for hope
An activist for race equality in media, Darshi co-founded the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival (VISAFF). As she writes on her website, the festival (currently in its 10th edition) “focuses on ‘bridging the gap’ between South Asian talent and mainstream audiences”, by breaking stereotypes. “My film, which has a regular Sikh Punjabi family living in Canada, isn’t about identity in the traditional sense — where people are in a new world and holding on to old traditions. That is a tiring theme that has been recycled many times,” she explains, adding that “we have moved on. I feel Canadian and that I belong here; but I am also an Indian girl and [as one] I feel like I belong here too”.
She wants to see more stories that touch on themes of humanity, lighter films that are more hopeful and positive. Streaming services are one of the tools that she believes will help this. “They have evened out the playing field. [For example, not only can] the whole world watch Funny Boy at the same time, but as the world gets smaller, such films will have more impact. Access to films and filmmakers will also keep improving.”
All of this facilitates representation, too. Having one Mindy Kaling, one Hasan Minhaj or one Kumail Nanjiani in the industry is not enough. “It used to be such a white boys’ club and so much about who you knew. But now you are able to write a story that represents you and you will find someone with a similar perspective, so that story will get seen,” she concludes.