Dheepan: Where Hope Is Still Alive

‘Dheepan’ was one of the entries at the recently concluded World Film Festival in Bangkok. The movie has garnered considerable interest after winning the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Directed by Jacques Audiard, the film is about three refugees who are seeking to escape from war-ravaged Sri Lanka and find asylum in France. The three are complete strangers to each other; Dheepan (played convincingly by Antonythasan Jesuthasan) Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and the young ‘daughter’ Ilayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby .)

Dheepan is actually Sivadhasan, a Tamil Tiger (LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who is seeking political asylum in France. Apparently it would be easier to pose as a family and hence, he links up with Yalini and Ilayaal and they take on the identities of the real Dheepan and his family, now dead. Once in France, he gets a job as the caretaker of a block of presumably council flats in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais. The story then unfolds to show how the three strangers struggle to find their footing not only in one home but also in a strange land. Dheepan has put all the violence of his past life firmly behind him and we see him now as the docile, amiable janitor doing his daily menial tasks. Somewhere along the way he is sexually attracted to Yalini and later, falls in love with her. Yalini is not settling in very well and indeed, her character is rather abrasive both with Dheepan as well as Ilayaal. She keeps talking about going away to her cousin in England, rather than live in France.

Although Dheepan is trying to live a peaceful, orderly life, the past has a way of catching up. The housing project is the scene of a turf war between rival, drug-dealing gangs. Yalini, who cooks and cleans for an elderly man, is now embroiled, as the leader of one of the gangs, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers, who acquits himself well) is shot in the house she works in. She calls up Dheepan in panic to come and save her. He resorts to the tricks of his past life, from blowing up a car to shooting anybody who comes in his way.

Direction, for the most part, is competent, with Jacques freely admitting that ‘Dheepan’ is partly inspired by Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters.’ The film opens tellingly with a scene of a mass cremation and we see a wounded Dheepan throwing his LTTE uniform on the pyre and walking away. Another well handled scene is the interview with the Immigrations official and the little aside between Dheepan and the interpreter; the way the latter gives a start on learning his real name is Sivadhasan, who has been presumed dead and, when the official asks what is Sivadhasan, the interpreter quickly covers up by saying it is the name of a village in the area. Yalini’s nude scene has been shot extremely gracefully by the director, with no frontal shots or titillation. The problems of immigrants who move to a foreign country in the hope of Utopia and then come up against the barriers of language, customs etc, has also been subtly portrayed.

So what then, is the problem? As almost always, the script (Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre) disappoints. There are loopholes in the story large enough to snag my toe in and fall backwards. Indeed, I pieced together much of the story by reading the synopsis of the movie. In the beginning, we see Yalini searching desperately through a refugee camp for a child who has been orphaned – cut to the scene in the tent where an official checks her face against a photo in a passport, asks her her age, tells her to lose weight, and asks Dheepan if it is okay. At no time is it explained to the audience that they needs must travel as a family. The description of the gang war too is pithy. One of the members tells Dheepan that the boss prefers them because they are foreigners and so feel nothing for the locals; it would have been nice to have it cleared up where they are from, as France and indeed many of the more affluent European countries are prey to these ghetto wars brought in by an immigrant populace. The biggest disconnect however, comes at the end of the movie. All this while we have been seeing Dheepan in his janitor’s outfit of jeans, denim jacket and boots, and suddenly after all the bloodshed, we seem him in a proper, full-sleeved, pale pink shirt,with a smiling Yalini handing him a baby; he steps into a garden where a picnic of sorts seems to be on, with people from a more civilised, upper strata of society than the one he frequented as a janitor.

I would venture to opine that Ms Kalieswari was not the right choice to handle the Q&A at the end of the movie on behalf of the cast. When I asked about the disconnect, she locked horns with me over the word “civilised,” contended that Dheepan was always civilised (I’m guessing this was after the symbolic burning of the uniform coz Mam’zelle, a terrorist by any name – Tiger or Panther – would smell as vile, if I may paraphrase, and his version of ‘civilised’ wouldn’t be something Emily Post would recognise!) and said that the scene was now set in England, where they moved to after the shoot-out. Well and good, but this to-ing anf fro-ing is not explained by the script! It was explained to me though by (another crew member) that Dheepan has now fallen so much in love that he gave in to his wife’s desire to move to England. In response to questions from other audience members regarding the immigrant experience or the ghetto violence, she skimmed over the top saying it was just a story and could happen in any place. A story such as ‘Dheepan,’ intentionally or otherwise, is bound to raise such questions within an audience and she should have been better coached on what to say.

The cast is a mix of nationalities; Antony is Sri Lankan, Kalieswari is Indian, from Tamil Nadu, while Claudine is of Sri Lankan-French parentage. The crew are completely French and an interpreter was required on set to translate the dialogues to the lead pair. Cinematography has been competently managed by Eponine Momenceau. The loose script shares blame with splotchy editing (Juliette Welfling.)

Much has already been writing in the media about Antonythasan having been a Tamil Tiger in real life; perhaps that is how he is able to bring so much of believability as well as vulnerability to his role. He was recruited as as a child soldier while a teenager, and later became a full-time cadre member. He became disillusioned with the LTTE and left, however, when the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) entered Sri Lanka, he was arrested as a member but subsequently released. He did indeed flee to France on a fake passport in 1993 with his brother and sister, where they were granted political asylum and where he did all sorts of menial jobs. In the late 1990’s, he turned writer under the pseudonym ‘Shobasakthi.’ This is not his first screen appearance; in 2011, he wrote and starred in ‘Sengadal’ (The Dead Sea.)

‘Dheepan’ is not so much about an immigrant problem, as certain sections of the media are harping on. Rather, it is about keeping hope going in the face of adversity; it is about making new beginnings possible if you have enough faith.

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