The Palms Of Jaffna

by Vaiju Naravane, Outlook India, June 15, 2015

Triumph: Jacques Audiard with his lead actors and the Palme d’Or at Cannes REUTERS (FROM OUTLOOK 15 JUNE 2015)

Sri Lanka’s troubles hover over Dheepan
In his seventh feature film, Dheepan, which won the coveted Golden Palm award at the 68th Cannes Film Festival recently, 63-year-old Jacques Audiard makes love, not war.Despite the fact that the film begins in war-torn Sri Lanka only to make its way into what can be described as a French suburban guerrilla zone, Dheepan is a deeply moving love story. Audiard uses the noir genre—the film pans out like a thriller, with several scenes of extreme viole­nce—to tell us a story prop­e­­l­led by two magnificent act­­­­ors, Ant­­­­­­­­o­­nythasan Jesu­th­­a­san, a former Tamil Tiger tur­ned writer and actor, and India’s Kal­ieaswari Srin­ivasan, who plays Dheepan’s pretend Sri Lankan wife here.It’s a fake family that goes from Sri Lanka to France. Dheepan has lost his family to the war, as has Yalini. She is on the lookout for a man and an orphan (Illayal, played by Claudine Vinasitha­mby) who could pass off as her husband and child. They must construct a plausible story of a family fleeing violence.In a single shot, after a sketchy Sri Lankan prologue, Audiard makes the leap from Sri Lanka to Europe, when the camera zeroes in on distant flashing lig­h­ts which turn out to be fluorescent bunny ears that Dheepan is trying to flog to earn a few bobs.If life was precarious in Sri Lanka, exi­stence as refugees in France is no picnic. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker on a run-down, drug- and crime-ridden housing estate in one of Paris’s infamous sub­urban ghettoes. Yalini cooks and cle­ans for an invalid whose flat has been req­uisitioned by drug-dealing hoodlums. She dreams of dumping the child and Dheepan to join her cousin in Britain. The girl, enrolled in a French school, is trying to cope. It is on this infertile soil that love blooms as Dheepan tries to nurture his fake family, to make it real.

Despite the rather improbable and violent end, Audiard imbues his film with tenderness and lyricism. He said the film was inspired by immigrants who try to make a living selling roses to diners in res­taurants. “These people are treated with indifference, contempt and rejection. I wanted to know what lay behind their lives,” Audiard said.

Despite the rather improbable end, Audiard imbues his film with enormous tenderness and a dream-like lyricism.

The true-life story of Anthonythasan Jesuthasan provided much of the detail. The novelist-turned-actor said he looked at French society through many eyes: as a person of colour, as a refugee, as a Mar­xist and as a novelist. “I have lived through many of the situations in the film. The crime-ridden ghettoes outside Paris are familiar to me. I still live there,” he said. Writing in The Independent, Kaleem Aftab said: “Dheepan is a radical and astonishing film that…takes a faceless immigrant coming from a war barely covered in the media and turns him into a Travis Bickle-type anti-hero.”In Little Sri Lanka in Paris’s 10th district, entirely inhabited by Sri Lankan Tamils, many of them civil war veterans, shoppers mill around buying mangoes, bhindi, Haldiram’s namkeens or Indian film and music DVDs. Sudersan, who works at a music store and claims to have known Anthonythasan, says it’s a proud moment for the community. “We know him well here and are waiting to see the film….” Does it bother the Tamil community that the protagonists are shown coming to France on pas­sports taken from the dead, using fake identities? “No, it’s the truth. When your family has been killed, when you are fle­­eing for your life what other option do you have?”

Although many critics considered it to be an unlikely winner, Dheepan was hailed by the jury, who said it had taken them very little time to decide. “Swift”, was how Ethan Coen, who joi­ntly cha­ired this year’s jury with his brother Joel, described the decision.

That said, it is unlikely the film will be a great box office draw. “There is increasing immigrant-fatigue. The French are fearful of their economic future and afr­aid of the inc­reasing number of immigr­ants pushing into Europe. Empathy, esp­­­ecially now, with the arrival of the Front National and other extremist parties, is drying up. Will the French really want to see a film where most of the dialogue is in Tamil?” asked cinema critic and journalist Natalie Attasi.


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