Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, about Sri Lankan Tamils in France, is a story of immigration in more ways than one

Dheepan won the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Baradwaj Rangan August 22, 2020 17:55:46 IST
Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, about Sri Lankan Tamils in France, is a story of immigration in more ways than one

At first, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan — winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival — appears to be a straightforward document of the immigrant experience.

Take the scene where Dheepan is interrogated by a French officer in what seems to be the naturalisation department. Dheepan is from Sri Lanka. He was a Tamil tiger. He left the island nation with his “wife” (Yazhini) and “daughter” (Ilaiyaal) and came to France, seeking asylum — and that’s why he’s being interrogated by this officer. Before emigrating, Dheepan, Yazhini and Ilaiyaal had no idea of each others’ existence. They are a makeshift family, which makes Dheepan an immigrant saga in another way, too: how these three people cross the “borders” of their individual existence and move to a state of communal living.

This scene with the French officer makes you smile. He asks Dheepan to explain how and why he left Sri Lanka. Dheepan says he was a journalist, a peace activist who worked for an NGO. The government made things difficult for him, and… The translator seated next to Dheepan cuts him off. He’s heard this story a hundred times before from other Sri Lankans asking for refuge, which means it’s likely the French officer has heard this story a hundred times before, too. The translator asks Dheepan, “Did your smuggler sell you that story? What side were you on in the war?” It’s not that he isn’t sympathetic. He wants Dheepan to make a stronger case. So Dheepan says he was forced to join the Tigers, and the Sri Lankan army captured and tortured him...

This may not be too far from the truth, really. The opening scene of the film, after all, is a sobering stretch where bodies are placed on dried palm fronds and set on fire — it’s the equivalent of the mass graves we’ve seen in movies about the Holocaust. Dheepan watches the conflagration silently with his allies. The sadness of this moment carries over to the scene where we first see Dheepan in France, selling flicker-in-the-dark trinkets like lighters and key chains for two euros. At first, we see just these neon flickers in the blackness of night. We don’t know what they are – it’s like being submerged in the sea and suddenly being confronted by bioluminescent beings. It’s only when Dheepan comes closer that we see that the “light” comes from his wares. The disorienting visual is a superb approximation of the disorientation Dheepan must feel at that moment.

But slowly, he begins to adjust. He gets the job of a caretaker in a run-down housing colony which is home to drug- and arms-trading gangs. The mid-section of the film is devoted to this family’s “settling down” in these new surroundings. When the three of them sit down for dinner, Dheepan instructs Ilaiyaal to use a spoon. Yazhini protests that the girl should be allowed to eat with her fingers. But Dheepan insists. He knows Ilaiyaal will need to use a spoon at school the next day. Immigration, after all, is not just about physically moving from one place to another. It’s also about the social, cultural “movements” that follow. Like Ilaiyaal, Dheepan and Yazhini experience their own confusions when they stuff correspondence addressed to the residents into a common mailbox, going by the letter that starts the first name. They soon discover they have caused a lot of confusion. Here, the last names are the ones that identify people.

Jacques Audiards Dheepan about Sri Lankan Tamils in France is a story of immigration in more ways than one

A still from Dheepan. Twitter

Perhaps the most subversive aspect of immigration in Dheepan is its source: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which “migrates” to Jacques Audiard’s vision. The Peckinpah film, released in 1971, is itself a kind of immigration story, about an American mathematician (played by Dustin Hoffman) who moves to the English countryside with his wife. (She’s British.) The locals are hostile to him. Plus, they are blue-collar folk. He’s an academic, whose values and mores are miles removed. The two worlds collide, and the Hoffman character finds himself under siege, having to defend his wife/home. The film is about the violence inside us, which bubbles under our skins, ready to erupt from even a pacifist like this bespectacled mathematician.

Towards the end of Dheepan, there is an echo of the violence in Peckinpah’s film, as Dheepan finds himself in the midst of a shootout to save Yazhini. But how did a story about primal vigilante justice (i.e., Straw Dogs) migrate, under Audiard’s direction, to something about the immigrant experience? In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Audiard said, “My idea was to explore the theme of an immigrant. That led me to explore and look around — who would be these people who would come from another place? The second theme that separated it from Straw Dogs was the theme of love and a false family. [Dheepan’s French family] is together in the film, but they’re not a real family. To develop that aspect was another way to distance myself from Straw Dogs and develop the heart of what the film was about.”

In one of the strangest of coincidences, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who plays Dheepan, was actually a soldier for the Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan civil war, who fled during a ceasefire and sought political asylum in France. The story goes that he auditioned for a minor part in Dheepan. But a few weeks before shooting started, Audiard heard his story and was captivated by the surreal similarities it shared with the story Audiard was looking to put on screen. Antonythasan was put through acting classes and made the film’s lead. The proverbial “rags to riches” tale?

Not quite. Despite the red carpet at Cannes and the few minutes of fame surrounding the Palme D’Or, Antonythasan told the Guardian that there’s nothing he’d like more than to return home. “Paris has been good to me, but… I live here waiting, and in hope.” He dreams of launching a magazine in Colombo, dedicated to Sri Lankan society. “The manifesto is already written. It’s in my flat, on the wall of my bedroom.” But apart from the “will he be allowed entry into the country of his birth?” question, there’s another hitch. He said, “I haven’t been there for so long, I don’t know what awaits me.” In other words, even if he does get back, it’s probably going to be an “immigrant experience” all over again.

Dheepan is streaming on Netflix.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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