Brandon Ingram on ‘Funny Boy’ and the queer Sri Lankan experience

Brandon Damian Ingram  

Brandon Damian Ingram is overwhelmed. He has what he calls a ‘regular’ job in advertising, he is studying for his Master’s in mass communication, and he is dealing with all the attention that comes with playing the lead in a much-anticipated film. The film in question: Deepa Mehta’s eponymous adaptation of the novel, Funny Boy. And given that it is Canada’s official entry to the Academy Awards this year, and was purchased by director Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array, the attention is unsurprising.

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But the excitement has largely been contained within the walls of the Sri Lankan actor’s home in Colombo, which he barely steps out of. “With everything else that’s happening in the world, I’ve just been in one place — on my phone,” he laughs.

Authored by Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy (which was originally published in 1994) tells the story of Arjie Chelvaratnam, a Tamil boy coming to terms with his sexuality against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic conflict in the ’80s.

Ingram, 35, vividly remembers the moment when he realised that a role in Funny Boy might become reality. In June last year, while at Colombo’s Barefoot Café, meeting with a friend, he received a message from Selvadurai — a casual acquaintance — informing him that the novel was to be adapted for film. “Deepa would like to audition you,” read the message. “I realised he meant Deepa Mehta and my mind was just blown,” confesses Ingram. Three months later, he was on sets, playing the older version of Arjie.

Ingram as Arjie Chelvaratnam

Ingram as Arjie Chelvaratnam   | Photo Credit: Vidur Bharatram

The time traveller

A pivotal event in Funny Boy is the Chelvaratnam family’s experience of Black July — the anti-Tamil pogroms that ravaged the country in 1983 and signalled the beginning of the decades-long conflict between the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan state. Ingram wasn’t alive during the riots (he was born two years later), but like all Sri Lankans of his generation, the event, and the war that ensued, defined his life. The conflict would only come to an end in 2009, when Ingram was 24.

Which is why recreating the horrors of ’83 felt like catharsis. “It was magical,” he says, about the chance to travel back in time. “While there was one part of bringing this book alive, there was also another part of reconstructing the past. It was like being inside a time machine every single day.”

Ingram on set with writer Shyam Selvadurai, and (right) at wrap up with Deepa Mehta

Ingram on set with writer Shyam Selvadurai, and (right) at wrap up with Deepa Mehta   | Photo Credit: @brandondamianingram

Soaps and careers

This is the theatre actor’s film debut, and when asked about his big-screen aspirations, he steers the conversation towards one particular medium. “I really want to be in a series because I love television so much. My dream — and this is going to sound hilarious — is to play the villain on one of those really soapy Hindi soaps, like Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. I feel like that’s my true calling,” he says, without any irony.

He is not sure, however, if he is ready to give up advertising just yet. He started in the field at 17, and 11 years later, decided to leave the industry. The five years that followed saw him live an itinerant life, waiting tables at a café in the beach town of Hikkaduwa, managing a bar in the western surfing hub of Arugam Bay, and working on his novels. But eventually, he felt a tug — to go back to Colombo. So he returned to advertising last year, joining Wunderman Thompson Worldwide (formerly JWT) as creative director — a job that he maintained even during the intense shooting schedule for Funny Boy.

Facing down criticism

Shyam Selvadurai is one of Sri Lanka’s renowned literary exports, and Funny Boy is one of his most acclaimed works. It is therefore surprising that Ingram hadn’t read the book until he was cast in the film. He says the subject matter was too close to him. As a young gay man grappling with his own sexuality, he was afraid to be associated with it. “Every time I was at a bookshop, I couldn’t pick it up. Because to even pick it up meant looking around and thinking, ‘They’re going to know’.”

A still from ‘Funny Boy’

A still from ‘Funny Boy’   | Photo Credit: Vidur Bharatram

In the years since, Ingram has become far more vocal and open about his sexual orientation and politics. On his personal blog, he has written about his country’s restrictive anti-LGBTQI laws — a hangover from its British colonial occupation, modelled after India’s own Section 377 (which was read down in 2018). That is why a gay Sri Lankan man playing the lead in an Oscar-contending movie about a gay Sri Lankan boy is a big deal to him. “I hope this film acts as a catalyst for more conversations,” he says.

And yet, sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora have criticised the casting choices in Funny Boy, including the decision to cast Ingram, a Sinhala-speaking, non-Tamil actor, in a Tamil-speaking role. As far as Tamil representation goes, the main cast features just one actress, Nimmi Harasgama, who is half-Tamil. After the release of the trailer in October, there was a call on social media to boycott the film. Also, critics said, whatever little Tamil could be heard was mispronounced, and amounted to erasure of Tamil Sri Lankan culture.

Get some local flavour
  • Funny Boy might make Sri Lanka a trending Google search, but the island has a plethora of art and culture that you can dig into, says Ingram. Here are three he recommends:
  • 1. Read Line of Lanka by Sunela Jayewardene, which delves into Sri Lanka’s myths and history across time.
  • 2. Catch a play by Mind Adventures, a theatre company that has focussed on social and sexual politics in the country. Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s award winning play, The One Who Loves You So, features two young men who meet on a gay dating app (Ingram played the lead role in previous stagings).
  • 3. Watch local TV dramas such as Kumbiyo. “I think we’re just starting to figure out TV, and Kumbiyo is one of the first pieces of work that really got it right,” he says.

When I bring this up, Ingram admits that he has held back on commenting about the issue. “It is wild for me to not say anything [because I am usually very outspoken on social media], but I don’t think I possess the right kind of ground,” he says, adding that he understands where the criticism comes from. In defence, he points to Mehta’s recent admission that she had auditioned Tamil actors who, for different reasons, had not accepted the role. And on a personal level, he doesn’t believe that being a non-Tamil prevents him from doing the role justice. He says that playing a Tamil character has even helped him understand his country’s past a little better.

Now that the film is in cinemas, he knows things may change. He is open to the possibility of relocating to pursue more acting opportunities (“I’ll definitely end up back in Sri Lanka”), but as to where that might be, he is not sure. Having grown up on a diet of dubbed Indian soap operas (“Mandira Bedi was bigger here than she was in India,” he says, gushing about the Indian actor’s ’90s serial, Shanti - Ek Aurat Ki Kahani), he is open to tapping into the Indian market. And luckily, he is fluent in Hindi, thanks to those very soap operas that he no longer watches in their dubbed formats.

Funny Boy will release internationally on Netflix on December 10.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 7:40:45 AM |

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