The Trans-National Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Filming History in Sri Lanka

Funny Boy(cott)

‘Cultural Diplomacy is Foreign Policy’ wrote Eelam Tamil journalist Sinthujan Varatharajah in an Instagram story last week. Varatharajah is at the frontline of boycott calls for Deepa Mehta and her film adaptation of ‘Funny Boy’. They have three ‘Instagram Story Highlights’ on Mehta’s directorial history of reducing Sri Lanka to a country that -as Varatharajah puts it- ‘can visually be confused as India’.

On the other side of the world, Canada is home to the largest Eelam Tamil diaspora. One of whom is Shyam Selvadurai. ‘Funny Boy’ (1994) is his debut novel. On paper, ‘Funny Boy’ comes off as ‘empowering’. A story that needs to be told. A story of being gay and Tamil in Sri Lanka, coming of age during the period of an Anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. 

Deepa Mehta and the Sri Lankan Oppressor State

In 2010, North Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta not only engaged in a filming negotiation with then-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man responsible for human rights abuse of Eelam Tamil people, but also went on to adapt a novel that doesn’t represent the reality of most Eelam Tamil people: a rich, upper-caste Tamil family living in the capital city of Colombo. 

Mehta’s previous films have their share of controversy. But what is especially pointed about her film ‘Water’ (2005) is when Hindutva groups stopped its filming in 2000, Mehta resumed it three years later in Sri Lanka. 

After independence from the British in 1948, the Sinhalese-majority country of Sri Lanka has a record of state-sponsored human rights violations against the Tamil ethnic minority. The Sri Lankan civil war between the State and the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ (LTTE) went on from 1983 to 2009.

Mehta’s ‘Water’ was filmed during Sri Lanka’s fragile peace time in 2003, due to a ceasefire agreement between both parties. 

In 2009, the civil war officially came to an end when the LTTE admitted defeat. 

In 2010, Deepa Mehta returned to Sri Lanka. 

This time Mehta sought permission to film the adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’, a novel based on the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Mehta had anticipated the opposition, and did not seek permission from the Indian or Pakistani government. 

Instead, she went to post-war Sri Lanka. There she was directly invited to meet with President Rajapaksa, instead of meeting with the Ministry of Mass Media and Information. 

Mehta often alludes to herself as a ‘humanitarian filmmaker’. She is vocal in her criticism of right-wing heads of state like Modi, Trump, etc. But this didn’t seem a hindrance in meeting with President Rajapaksa. A head of state who presided over human rights violations against Eelam Tamil people during his 10 year presidency (2005-2015). Allowing ‘Midnight’s Children’ to be shot in Sri Lanka was mutually beneficial to Mehta and Rajapaksa. 

In 2010, Sri Lanka was facing criticism from the ‘West’ over its record of human rights abuse in the civil war. Deepa Mehta (a diasporic director of international acclaim) shooting in Sri Lanka aligned with the government’s plans to boost its international image and post-war economy through foreign investment and tourism.

On 22 October, the BBC reported that the Sri Lankan government paid 3 million pounds to top British PR firm Bell Pottinger Group for the year. Bell Pottinger was believed to be lobbying on behalf of the Sri Lankan government following an EU (European Union) decision to withdraw special tax concessions to the country. The EU cited Sri Lanka’s failure to improve its human rights record as the reason. The Pottinger Group was also thought to be lobbying against a UN probe into war crimes of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Iran, which has a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’, and one of Sri Lanka’s closest allies and funders in the civil war, objected to the filming of ‘Midnight’s Children’ in Sri Lanka. It made an official complaint with the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran. Production of ‘Midnight’s Children’ was stopped after the Sri Lankan ambassador reversed the government. Mehta rushed to Colombo to meet Rajapaksa who -according to Mehta- said ‘This is rubbish’. “He wasn’t about to get bullied,” said Mehta in an interview with the Colombo Gazette. Mehta’s selective criticism of authoritarian governments is more than just that.

Cultural Diplomacy is Foreign Policy

Mehta’s projects are funded by the Canadian government. ‘Funny Boy’ is funded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Telefilm Canada, both affiliated to the government. It is Canadian taxpayer money that funds Mehta’s projects. Taxpayers that include the largest Eelam Tamil diaspora in the world. 

Amidst boycott calls, ‘Funny Boy’ remains Canada’s entry for the Oscars. Most Canadian news coverage focuses on the mangled Tamil delivery of the non-Tamil lead cast and whitewashing of the characters skin colour, as the main reasons for boycott calls. While true, it is also important to understand that these directorial choices are the result of Mehta’s general apathy for Eelam Tamil people. If the Canadian government doesn’t withdraw ‘Funny Boy’ as its Oscars entry, it becomes complicit in Mehta’s apathy.


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