Most journalists predicted that Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama, Carol, or Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Assassin, a historical 9th century account of intrigues in the royal court (where a woman is trained to kill her favourite cousin) would take Cannes’ top award. The bookies had also laid bets on Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, a film about human anxieties, relationships and loneliness. Instead, Dheepan won, and the decision of the jury, presided over by brothers and American directors Joel and Ethan Coen, was met with boos. To me, this smacked of a racist undertone.
The best explanation for this came from Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto Film Festival. He tweeted that the colour of the protagonist (as well as the other two major performers in the movie) might have been a factor in ‘the failure of many critics to recognise the brilliance of the film’ .
Dheepan was indeed magnificent. It just floored me—and the movie proved third time lucky for Jacques Audiard, who won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes in 1996 with A Self-Made Hero and picked up the Grand Prix for A Prophet (a riveting take on life in a jail) in 2009.
Later at a press conference after the prizes had been handed out, Audiard said, “I wanted to reflect on the situation that is currently ongoing in the Mediterranean. Those people who sell roses to us in a café, where do they come from, what is their background, their motivations—that is what spurred me on.” Some members of the jury also felt the same. They were happy that Audiard had been able to portray the life of immigrants with such sensitivity. They too were curious about how these men and women lived and survived in France and Europe.
I have always felt that juries are moved by war and other kinds of human conflict. Of course, cinema has been fascinated by this. At Cannes this year, there were a few films on this subject. The Hungarian work, Son of Saul, by debutant helmet Laszlo Nemes, is a touching tale of a Jew in Auschwitz, who, finding a body that he believes is his son’s, tries desperately to give the boy a decent burial. But locating a priest is no mean task.
Gurvinder Singh’s The Fourth Direction (Chauthi Koot) from India, which was part of the Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, is a haunting plot set in the 1980s’ Punjab, where militancy played havoc with people’s lives. It did not win a prize, though, but was well liked by critics and others. Singh’s greatest scoring point here was his exceptional ability to show fear and anxiety with just a hint of violence. There were no gory scenes, no blood shed—truly Hitchcockian in that sense.
Similarly, Audiard must have struck a chord with the jury, because Dheepan spoke about the ravages of war that just about destroyed the beauty and dignity of the picturesque island-nation of Sri Lanka, leaving its people deeply scarred. A 30-year civil war between the Government (made up of the majority Sinhala speaking population) and Tamils, led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demanding a separate homeland, led to a bloody mess. Thousands were killed, thousands maimed or orphaned, and one of them is nine-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) in Audiard’s compelling fictional feature.
For me, a Tamil-speaking Indian, it was just wonderful to hear characters in the French helmer’s work speak in that language. In my 26 years at Cannes, I do not recall a film where Tamil was the main language. And mind you, made by an essentially French auteur who has in the past given us works such as Rust and Bone and the excellent A Prophet.
The film strongly reminded me of Prasanna Vithanage’s arresting work, With You, Without You—about a Sinhala pawn-broker and former soldier who falls in love with and marries a Tamil girl. Both Audiard and Vithanage’s creations can be seen as efforts to assuage emotions and soothe souls tortured by the war.
Dheepan opens with a funeral pyre which seemingly indicates that Sri Lankans and the nation itself want to lay to rest the inglorious past—laced with rancour and revenge. Audiard’s is a story of a former Tiger (part of the LTTE). The film’s lead character, Dheepan (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, a non-professional actor who was once a child soldier in Prabhakaran’s army) does not want to have anything to do with even the memory of that war. He cremates his former comrades and burns his own uniform before seeking political asylum in France, and to make this look authentic, he finds a woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan, a theatre and TV artist from Chennai), to act as his wife. They also include Illayaal as their daughter to ‘complete’ their family—for the ease of their swift immigration.
However, when they settle down in a Paris suburb, peace does not come easily to them. The place is infested with drug peddlers and gun-toting gangs whose bullets and bravado disturb Yalini and the little girl even as they desperately try to shake off their messy past.
The film has several outstanding moments—as we see Dheepan (after telling off a former Tiger colonel that the war for him is truly over) become a caretaker for the housing complex where he lives, as we see Yalini taking on the job of a carer and Ilayaal beginning her French lessons in a new school. In so many ways, the movie is a story of struggle—of three people who want to build their lives afresh, and shake off the ashes and stains of a horrific past.
The film is a radical effort to picture not just the ravages of war on the human psyche, but also how new settlers in a foreign land are treated. In the Parisian suburb, Dheepan is enormously disliked because he refuses to be part of the gang wars there. However, at the end, Audiard succeeds in making the immigrant family the heroes—heroes who eventually seek a peaceful turf to lead their lives. It signifies the victory of harmony over discord, and Audiard does this with consummate ease. Dheepan turned out to be the boldest work at Cannes. Few will dispute this.
Audiard has become a master at celebrating the outsider, and is often referred to as the French Scorsese. His heroes are usually the underdogs of society: the gangster in the The Beat That My Heart Skipped to the scar-faced Arab of a Prophet, who goes to jail and becomes a don of the place. He weaves his art seamlessly into the mainstream, but picks up minority themes frequently.
Dheepan, the movie’s protagonist, is different. Though a rank outsider in Paris, he neither looks for sympathy as an immigrant nor seeks concessions for his past agony and suffering. Interestingly, Antonythasan is not a professional actor, and shares a common background with the character he portrays. He was a fighter in Prabhakaran’s force, and had to cool his heels in several jails before he got asylum in 1997. He was just 25 then. Admittedly, he has had one cinematic experience —that of writing and staring in Sengadal (The Dead Sea), which was banned in India.
Sengadal was not the only one that was denied exhibition rights. There have been several films—such as Madras Cafe, Inam and With You, Without You—which could not be shown in Tamil Nadu. Bonded by a common language, Tamils in India and Sri Lanka share a strong relationship. Even today, any movie that even remotely tilts in favour of the Sri Lankan Government or Sinhalas is regarded as a strict no-no for broadcast in Tamil Nadu.
This I think is unfortunate, because both Inam and With You, Without You are both almost passionate attempts at building a bridge between the Sinhalas and Tamils. I wonder whether Audiard’s work will ever find an outlet in Tamil Nadu.
As far as his women characters are concerned, Audiard has not really shown any particular talent in giving them enough scope in his films. But Kalieaswari Srinivasan—who essays Dheepan’s fake wife Yalini—is truly extraordinary in her role as a housemaid. She wins the heart of the son of an elderly man whom she is employed to take care of. And the sexual tension between the two is portrayed beautifully on screen.
Srinivasan is part of the theatre circuit in Chennai, Madurai and Puducherry. Dheepan is her first feature film. She has, however, starred in a Tamil short film that later became the full-length Kuttram Kadithal.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is the author of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life In Cinema. He has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades)