Deepa Mehta's 'Funny Boy' chosen as Canada's contender for international film Oscar

TORONTO — Filmmaker Deepa Mehta says she's proud of what "Funny Boy" stands for, as the upcoming drama represents Canada in the Oscar race for best international feature film — marking the director's second time competing in the category.

Telefilm Canada announced Thursday that a pan-Canadian committee of about 20 voting delegates chose the project out of a total of 11 films submitted for Academy Awards consideration.

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The New Delhi-raised, Toronto-based Mehta co-wrote the screenplay with author Shyam Selvadurai, who penned the bestselling Canadian novel on which the film is based.

The coming-of-age story is told mostly in the Tamil language and sees a young boy growing up gay in Sri Lanka during the deadly Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.

"It's a book about love, it's a book about hope, and the background of it is the oppression of minorities," Mehta said Thursday in a video press conference with the film team and Christa Dickenson, executive director of Telefilm Canada.

"The divisiveness that human beings are capable of is the core for me about this film, and it's so relevant to today. The book was written 24 years ago but it's (relevant) today, I think, as I see the world falling apart and we need hope, much more than we ever did."

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must now decide which films will move on to the next round of voting in the category.

Mehta's 2005 film "Water," about widows at an ashram in India, made it through the multi-step process and ultimately competed at the Oscars in 2007 for best foreign language film, the category's previous name.

Telefilm says Mehta is still the only Canadian woman to have been nominated for the Academy Award in that category.

Last year's Canadian selection was Montreal writer-director Sophie Deraspe's francophone refugee drama "Antigone," which ultimately did not get selected for a nomination.

"It's to the credit of Canada that a film which is about Hindu widows, in Hindi, was supported by Telefilm Canada," Mehta said of "Water."

"And today, 15 years later, a film which is mostly in Tamil, a little in English — it's about Sri Lankans, it's about the civil war, it's about gay coming-of-age, it's again being supported by Canadians."

David Hamilton and Hussain Amarshi produced "Funny Boy," with a cast including Brandon Ingram, Nimmi Harasgama, Ali Kazmi, Agam Darshi, and Arush Nand.

Mehta shot it in Sri Lanka with a mostly Sri Lankan cast and some Canadian actors before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She was also able to finish the editing in Madrid and catch the last flight back from there to Toronto before the lockdown.

But the team had to do post-production remotely in Toronto, working with actors in Sri Lanka to record added dialogue.

Three-time Oscar-winning Canadian composer Howard Shore had to arrange the score from New York, working with musicians as far away as Mumbai and Switzerland.

Mehta said thinking on their feet and being more inventive to get the project done during the pandemic has her confident about the team's ability to launch an Oscars campaign at this time.

"It's been a big test of our ability to survive, so in fact, I welcome it," said Mehta, whose other credits include the films "Fire," "Earth," "Heaven on Earth" and "Midnight’s Children."

"It sounds strange, but it's true, I do. I feel we've been challenged and we meet it, and that's not just us. I'm talking about human beings. It's the indomitable spirit of what makes us live, I think."

The film also has a superstar supporter in Oscar-nominated director-producer Ava DuVernay, whose ARRAY Releasing distribution company recently acquired the film.

"Funny Boy" will debut on CBC-TV on Dec. 4 and then hit the CBC Gem streaming service, followed by Netflix outside of Canada on Dec. 10.

"I remember Ava saying that this is what she really would have liked," Mehta said. "She said, 'If, by any chance, you get the nomination from Canada, we at ARRAY' — and I quote her — 'will roll up our sleeves and we'll be right behind it.

"So I feel we're in really good hands. She thinks the way we think. She realizes how important voices that have never been heard get heard, and she is a force to reckoned with."

The 2021 Oscars will take place later than usual, on April 25, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2020.

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