An Epic Film about Tamil Migrants in France: Dheepan

Parthiban Manoharan, in CONFLUENCE,  May 2016, where the title is “Dheepan – A powerful masterpiece of a film about migrants”

The Western World, especially Europe, is facing an unprecedented crisis. The influx of refugees and the hordes of migrant boats that do not cease to arrive is fuelling distress and chaos. This anguish is fundamentally rooted in the question of identity, the identity of Europe, its homogeneity that is suddenly being shaken by the arrival of migrants of diverse faiths, color and culture. Maybe it was this sense of uneasiness and fear of the unknown that transpired into boos and disappointment at the festival hall, primarily made up of film critics, when Dheepan won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes this past year. Cameron Bailey, the Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), who was present at the ceremony tweeted “Dheepan hit me hardest at Cannes but it left others cold. Partly a question of how and where we identify at the movies.


The protagonists of Dheepan, directed by the renowned Jacques Audiard, are people of color, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to be precise, who are confronted with the realities of creating a new life in a rough suburban French neighbourhood. Added to this mix is a French production that is primarily in Tamil. It must have been a strange experience for these critics to witness a French film that celebrates individuals that they aren’t used to seeing on celluloid and that too in a language unfamiliar to them. Responding to the critics Joel and Ethan Coen who were part of the jury mentioned “We all thought it was a beautiful movie. This isn’t a jury of film critics. This is a jury of artists looking at the work”.

Its Northern Sri Lanka right at the end of the civil war where Sivadasan is shown as an injured LTTE member abandoning his uniform. A young woman is in search of an orphan child in a refugee camp and finds a girl who has just lost her parents. The scene immediately cuts to a makeshift office where the three of them are given passports of deceased individuals and are told to act as family thereafter. The identities Dheepan, Yalini and Illayal are assumed and we are shown the three of them cramped in a small fishing boat headed to India where they will be boarded onto a flight to Europe to seek political asylum.  Here begins the story of Dheepan. Immediately the scene is completely dark with blinking red and blue lights slowly appearing on the screen. We are made to think that it might be lights from a police car but then it’s revealed that Dheepan is selling blinking head bands in the streets of Paris only to be interrupted by the police who are cracking down on illegal workers. Next we follow the characters undergoing the migrant experience, struggling at first and then getting on with life in a rough French neighborhood. Dheepan and Yalini who were random strangers at the beginning start to develop a liking for each other. But things take an ugly turn when they are confronted with the likes of their past that they left behind in Sri Lanka once again. This transition and foreshadowing is developed in an interesting way where Dheepan, Yalini and Illayal visit a temple and observe a libation ceremony on the lord Nataraja, the cosmic god of renewal, whose dance is to destroy and make creation, the new, possible. Here Jacques is letting us know that in order for these characters to move forward they need to confront and destroy their demons both internal  and external which unfolds in one of the most riveting and gripping action packed climax dramas I have seen. This might also be the director indirectly hinting, as he does with one of the scenes where Illayal’s T-shirt reads “New World Order”, at the current state of Europe to confront and abolish prejudices and to accept the new norm.

Dheepan is beautiful cinema as the Coen Brothers announced. A film that needs to be celebrated as much for its cinematic experience as it is for its authentic portrayal of life of a refugee “family”.  In the two hours you are completely immersed into the lives of Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesudasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayal (Claudine Vinasithamby). You feel that you are a silent observer witnessing the intimate and personal moments of these three lives and somewhere identify yourself with them. Conflict, fear, triumph, isolation, humor, love and solace are intertwined in the most honest way that it’s quite impossible to separate yourself from the film even after it’s over. This is director Jacques Audiard’s success. So is his skill is crafting some of the most interesting scenes. The last set of action sequences are totally in the perspective of the main protagonist Dheepan. The camera follows him be it at eye level or at his feet level, while the surroundings are somewhat blurry with bullets penetrating through, blood splashing or the attackers falling over. It created such an impact that everyone around me in the cinema were at the edge of their seats, some even vocally expressing their involvement with the scenes. The casting is equally spot on where non-actors Antonythasan and Claudine along with seasoned Chennai based theatre actor Kalieaswari perform extraordinarily well and have literally lived as these characters, thereby creating lasting impressions.

Dheepan in film

The intention of art is to elevate human experience and push boundaries in the process. Art also has a deep sense of responsibility. When art is rooted in reality, made with great skill and is able to do all of the above in the process, then it stands out and is bound to make a lasting impact. Dheepan is not short of that definition. I believe that’s what the Coen Brothers meant when they remarked, “they are a jury of artists looking at the work” and this piece of art deserves all the recognition.

When the film came to an end and the credits started to roll, the cinema hall I was in, in Toronto, was eerily quiet. People didn’t move. It took about ten seconds before everyone started clapping and then nodded at each other approvingly at what they had just witnessed. Does Dheepan need anything more?

ParthibanParthiban Manoharan is an upcoming writer currently lives in Toronto, Canada. With interests in Carnatic music, world issues and culture, Parthiban holds an MBA from the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

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