Filmmaker Deepa Mehta said that she was “disappointed” that her film Funny Boy, a coming-of-age drama about a young Tamil boy in 1980s Sri Lanka who falls in love with a male classmate, will not be streaming on Netflix India. The film was only released in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. It was odd that a film set in Sri Lanka was not being released in South Asia, or anywhere outside these four countries. The film isn’t even on Netflix in Canada, which sent the film as its official entry to the Oscars for Best International Feature.
“I was disappointed when I heard that Netflix India had passed on acquiring Funny Boy for India when Netflix Global was streaming it for English speaking territories across the world. But […] I do want to make it clear that I did not speak to anyone in Netflix India personally pitching the film to them, nor was I told what their reason of passing on it was. We were just told that this was Netflix India’s decision. Can only ruminate on their rationale – LGBT’Q content? Political content or perhaps that they plain did not like the film and think it appropriate for their viewers.” — Deepa Mehta to MediaNama.
Netflix says film part of bulk deal
Netflix told MediaNama that it had licensed Funny Boy as a part of an output deal with filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, a collective that works on amplifying the work of Black and women directors. It was indeed ARRAY that announced Funny Boy’s arrival on Netflix last October, with Variety reporting that it would receive a launch in these four countries. Netflix did not say that it tried to license the film for India, or that it plans on trying to do so.
The confusion was compounded when SpotBoyE reported on January 4, without naming any sources, that Netflix India passed on the film due to its exploration of sensitive political themes. SpotBoyE later heavily edited the story, which now says that the platform will not stream the film because it doesn’t have the rights. An ARRAY spokesperson declined to comment on whether the collective had the rights for the film in other territories, and if they tried selling those rights to Netflix, saying “ARRAY does not comment or share business information about our acquisitions or licensing agreements.”
Mehta’s films have faced dramatic levels of pushback from political forces over the years. Her 1996 film Fire was one of the first in India to feature a same-sex relationship, and though the film was passed mostly uncut, theatres showing it were vandalised, and then-Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi supported some of the rioters. When Mehta was shooting Water, another film in her Elements trilogy, RSS and VHP cadres burnt down the set she was shooting at in Varanasi, and then-RSS chief KS Sudarshan met her personally to discuss redactions to her script. Eventually, Mehta ended up shooting the film in Sri Lanka, where Funny Boy is based.
Netflix and censorship in India
Netflix has indulged in its fair share of censorship in India over the last few years. In 2017, Netflix insisted on a theatrically censored version of the film Angry Indian Goddesses, after releasing the uncensored version of the film in other countries. In 2019, the company reportedly refused to buy rights to the film Sexy Durga, according to the film’s director, due to its controversial religious themes.
That same year, it warned Hasan Minhaj to not show a version of the Kashmir map disputed by the Indian government (the company’s originals now tend to use maps reflecting the Indian version of the border). The border would lead Netflix to another first, releasing a CBFC cut of a Hollywood film: the company released a censored version of Mission Impossible: Fallout seemingly to avoid showing a version of the Indian map that does not conform to Indian territorial claims of Kashmir.
In 2020, it emerged that the company was using a heavily censored version of Vikings in India, unlike in other territories, and claimed that the reason was to incorporate the Hindi dub, which was unavailable for the uncut version.
Update (January 8): Added statement by ARRAY.