Shyam Selvadurai on adapting Funny Boy with Deepa Mehta

Updated - September 20, 2018 03:29 pm IST

Published - September 20, 2018 12:09 pm IST

 “Because I so love her films, there was an immediate sense of trust for me,” says Selvadurai about working with filmmaker Deepa Mehta.

“Because I so love her films, there was an immediate sense of trust for me,” says Selvadurai about working with filmmaker Deepa Mehta.

In 1994, when Shyam Selvadurai wrote Funny Boy , Sri Lanka was in the throes of a civil conflict that would continue for 15 more years. Described widely as a coming of age tale, the novel recounts the story of Arjie Chelvaratnam, the young protagonist who grapples with his homosexuality in his war-torn home. Today, the war is over, and Selvadurai has written other books including his latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts (2013), but the author is convinced that Funny Boy is still relevant. He also believes that fellow Canadian Deepa Mehta will do justice to it in her upcoming film adaptation which is expected to commence in early 2019.

“The book is still in print and widely read — my 14 year old nephew in Toronto was telling me the other day that his school friends have read it, and not for class either,” shares Selvadurai. “It tells the universal story of the search for self and the search for love in a hostile world.” With childlike naivety, Arjie refuses to accept societal norms about how a boy must behave. “His act of rebellion in the name of love is part of Funny Boy’ s enduring appeal, and this transcends time and the politics of Sri Lanka,” the author explains.

In the 24 years since it was published, Funny Boy has been optioned many times, often with disappointing results. “The screenplays were all missing the human story and going straight for the violence,” shares Selvadurai, who, at 19, left for Canada with his family, fleeing the war. A recent break from novel writing propelled the author to adapt the story himself. He looked to screenwriter Syd Field’s work for tips, and combed through successful examples to help him write his own screenplay. The result, which was shared with Mehta, won the filmmaker’s interest, and the collaboration commenced.

“It was a pleasure from the beginning,” says Selvadurai about working with Mehta. “Deepa really knows how to talk to a writer, how to make a suggestion, and then leave you to creatively figure it out. She's truly gifted at this, and I say this having worked with great editors like the late Ellen Seligman who edited Atwood, Ondaatje, and Mistry.”

This is not the first time the duo has worked together. In 2006, Mehta directed an adaptation of Funny Boy for a live radio play produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2006. This time around, they worked together on fine-tuning Selvadurai’s latest screenplay, with Mehta even telling the author that he had gone too far from the book and needed to come closer to it. “Because I so love her films, there was an immediate sense of trust for me,” the author adds. “ I know she's loved the book since it was published and I know she will make a great film. In the end, film is a director's medium and the screenplay must be shaped to the director's vision. In some instances, I imagine it must be hard for both the screenwriter and the novelist of the original work. But in this case, it was not a problem at all.”

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