The lead actor of Dheepan is one of the guests celebrated by the francophone film festival
After Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan unexpectedly won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, many people suddenly found themselves able to point out Sri Lanka on a world map.
The tale of a refugee family’s move to France struck a chord for obvious reasons—refugee crises were some of the most reported-on stories this year.
The film makes no attempt to speak for all refugees or make a grand political statement—in part, it’s a drama about alienation and in part an exploration of crime in some of the dangerous suburbs of Paris. Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who played the lead character, describes it as a love story, as well as a story about people who slowly become a family. In fact, the catch is that the father, mother and daughter who come to France are in no way related—they were given false identities in order to flee Sri Lanka. They must keep up appearances in order to fit in, while struggling to fit in—even with each other.
Audiard wrote the story with the help of two screenwriters, uncertain that he would even find actors who fit the profiles of his characters. Asked how he got involved with the project, Jesuthasan answered bluntly—“audition.” That is a wonder, as Jesuthasan fit the profile written for him perfectly. He is himself a Sri Lankan refugee who was, like his character, once a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—a terrorist organization as classified by 32 countries—and lived in a suburb of Paris similar to the one depicted in Dheepan.
While Jesuthasan had little acting experience, he described, with the help of an interpreter, how acting was always something he was fond of—he took part in traditional shows starting at the age of 10, and during his time in the LTTE he worked on cultural events rather than war. Later, he worked in theatre and since 2001 has been a published writer.
While he was not involved in the screenplay for Dheepan, he adapted the dialogue from French to Tamil, his mother tongue, and came up with the title—Dheepan is the name his character goes by in France. Most of the film is spoken in Tamil, which made Jesuthasan’s work all the more important. “I was the one who taught the actors to speak [the language],” he said, referring to the fact that his co-stars were born in India and France, not Sri Lanka.
While Jesuthasan insisted that Dheepan had no political agenda, he said it was unlikely that the film would ever be released in Sri Lanka because of its criticism towards the Sri Lankan government and its depiction of war crimes. Despite his continued efforts as a writer, Jesuthasan admits that there is little chance of bringing about change in Sri Lanka through literature or film. “If we could change something, we would have done it 30 years ago,” he said.
However, Dheepan managed to raise public awareness of Sri Lankan issues, and speaking out about such issues is surely a start.
Discover Dheepan and many other films at the Cinemania film festival, which celebrates the best of francophone cinema every year. The festival runs from Nov. 5 to Nov. 15, most screenings take place at the Imperial Theatre.