Dheepan keeps focus on refugees

Resettlement drama is about a trio of Tamils fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka for Paris

Kalieswari Srinivasan plays a Tamil fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka for Paris in Dheepan.
Kalieswari Srinivasan plays a Tamil fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka for Paris in Dheepan.PHOTO: RENDEZVOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA

Movies centred on refugee issues too often follow a colonialist template - Westerners are complex and conflicted, while refugees are plot devices that exist to help their saviours find redemption.

Not Dheepan (NC16, 109 minutes). The winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival is a drama about resettlement which keeps its focus on a trio of Tamils fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka for Paris.

The man (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), woman (Kalieswari Srinivasan) and girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) are thrown into a tough part of town. They have to cope with culture shock while dealing with secrets and lies carried over from the old country.

The film will open this year's Rendezvous With French Cinema festival on Friday, with a ticketed cocktail screening on Saturday.

Srinivasan, speaking to Life on the telephone from her home city of Chennai, says the film treats the refugees as "individuals, as people, rather than just as victims or statistics".

"In most films, my character would be the Other, as 'them', not 'us'. We've been given every emotion - love and hatred, everything you find in a human being," says the 31-year-old actress.

The French production is directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, maker of the critically acclaimed Rust And Bone (2012) and A Prophet (2009). It cast a net for actors in France, Sri Lanka and India.

Srinivasan auditioned in Chennai and won the part of Yalini, a woman with a hidden past who colludes with former Tamil Tiger fighter Dheepan (Antonythasan) and orphan Illayaal (Vinasithamby) to form a fake family and better their chances of a visa.

She is known mainly for theatre work in her home city and Dheepan is her first feature.

"The casting director was looking for someone who could bring rawness and strength to Yalini and he probably thought I could do justice to the part," she says.

As it turned out, the other lead roles also went to other first-timers. Antonythasan, whom she calls "Antony", a respected writer in Tamil and former Tamil Tiger fighter who settled in France more than two decades ago, has never acted. Newcomer Vinasithamby's parents are also immigrants who moved to France more than 20 years ago.

More than 90 per cent of the film was shot in Paris and a majority of the dialogue is in Sri Lankan Tamil, which is different from the Tamil that Srinivasan speaks. On set, she spoke with director Audiard in English while being coached in Sri Lankan Tamil by actors, she says.

Since the film's making and release, the refugee crisis in Europe has reached a peak. The shootings in Paris two weeks ago have also drawn attention to issues of cultural assimilation and xenophobia.

Srinivasan, who has been travelling with the film, but will not be in Singapore for its opening because of an earlier commitment to a Russian festival, notes that refugee crises are not new. "What's happening is alarming and sad. But refugees have been moving across borders from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s - through history."

Refugees are brushed under the carpet when there is no crisis bringing global attention to their plight, so the current focus is welcome.

The issue of migrants being denied rights is one she sees in her home state of Tamil Nadu. "We have Sri Lankan refugees who have lived here for more than 20 years and yet are still not citizens. They still live in camps, they cannot buy land and find it hard to look for work," she says.

•Dheepan will open the Rendezvous With French Cinema festival on Friday at an invitation-only screening. A $19 ticketed screening, which includes cocktails, will be held at Alliance Francaise on Saturday at 8pm. For bookings and other films at the festival, go to www.rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Dheepan keeps focus on refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe