The storyline of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, though claimed to have been co-written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Dbre, echoes strongly with Shobhasakthi’s (avatar of Dheepan’s lead actor Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) Gorilla (2001) and Traitor (2010). In fact, before we come to know him as Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, we know him as Shobhasakthi, through his powerful prose which readers like myself, uneducated in the Tamil, would later read in translation. The echoes between the texts referred to, and the overall atmosphere energized by the film are unmistakable, and in one of the post-screening interview Shobhasakthi / Anthonythasan gives he, in his shy-off-screen way, modestly claims that the ratio between his own biographical input and fictionalization is 50:50.
The storyline of Dheepan is set in the immediate aftermath of Sri Lanka’s military crushing of the LTTE in 2009, bringing to close thereby its two and a half decade long civil war, with many questions being asked than answers given. The closure of the war comes after a fierce attack on retreating LTTE combatants, along with thousands of unarmed civilians who were moving alongside the rebels. Between October 2008 and May 2009, these civilian zones come under heavy artillery by the Sri Lankan military, and the exact numbers of lives lost in the closing stages of the war – that is, between January and May 2009 alone – is not known exactly, though a minimum number of 15,000 is often quoted in reports. The number, invariably, has to be higher than that.
In the immediate aftermath of the military victory, developments for which answers are still being sought by the international community as well as the progressive quarters of Sri Lanka’s own citizenry begin to occur. These include the deaths of LTTE carder who were known to have surrendered to the Sri Lankan military, forced disappearances from refugee camps, rape and sexual slavery, subhuman treatment of Tamil civilians and torture and incarceration of various forms of which evidence has since been submitted to the highest platforms in human rights protection.
When Audiard produces Dheepan in 2015, the war has already been over for 6 years, but, the post-war context in Sri Lanka was in a quagmire of an unprecedented kind. In the South of the country, in its Sinhala-dominant areas, a different kind of post-war nationalism was being encouraged by the state, hinged on chauvinistic Sinhala-Buddhist militarist overtones, while in incidents that were covertly blessed by powerful members of the regime, systematic attacks on the country’s Muslim community was being stoked. The Darga Town Incident in Aluthgama, in 2012, was what caught the international limelight, though this was just a headline-maker of a series of strategized attacks aimed at the Muslim minority, from as early as 2011.
In 2015, the then regime led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksha had already sullied its international image regarding post-war reconciliation. It had no clear response nor a clear idea when confronted by questions of disappearances and extra-judicial conduct in the North. In fact, the North was cordoned off, and kept under an iron curtain of military presence. The military-to-citizen ratio in Jaffna alone was said to be 1:5. The incidents that would later slowly, but gradually, permeate into the mainstream as evidence of people abused, humiliated, tortured, killed, raped, and erased off the face of the earth were developing behind this curtain, as the State denied criminality while the world looked on in passive disbelief.
Dheepan, in a purely symbolic way, powerfully addresses the cynic and the alien, presenting a violent string of incredible possibilities a community that is the fugitive of basic human situations is capable of, in the name of survival. Audiard has dramatized these possibilities, condensing them in the built-in framework of an action-thriller blockbuster; but, as a showcasing of the plight that has been the burden of the Sri Lankan Northern and Eastern Tamil community for over two decades, and more so, in the immediate run up and aftermath of the war, the signal given by Audiard’s film cannot be ignored.
This signal, however, is one more empathically understood by those who have some interest in the war in question. For example, most reviewers who have analyzed the film for the Northern and Western mainstream have missed out on the subjectivities and semiotics of the film, when referred from a Sri Lankan point of entry. For instance, The Guardian, in one of its reviews of the film muses on how the film does not help the issue of immigration; which, I felt, was laughable, given so many other mitigating factors on which self-exile in places like Sri Lanka is hinged.
For me, Dheepan’s or Yali’s illicit board to France has a historical parallel with the lives of those who surrendered to the Sri Lankan military in the aftermath of the war. As this is written today, there are ongoing peaceful demonstrations in Sri Lanka by parents and families of those whose loved ones were surrendered (by themselves) to the Lankan military, heeding a request by the latter, in the second half of 2009. To this day, these families are to hear of their son, husband or their relative, who has, since then, simply “vanished” or been “vapourized”. In Dheepan we see families violently torn up, and others who are forced by circumstances to be families ad hoc, forging identities and faking loyalties for survival. The violent physical, cultural and psychological upheaval that follows conflict often manifests in the rude abnormality of the kind reflected in the lives of Dheepan and Yali. We hear narratives from refugee camps where girls as young as 13 or 14 are quickly forced into marriage, in the hope that they will be then spared by would-be sexual predation. We hear of families adopting children orphaned by the war, now with no direction to go; and of young widows and widowers foregoing considerations of region, religion and caste – variables that would have mattered to them in a different stage of their lives – to re-assume a degree of normality in the immediate post-war aftermath.
Dheepan’s critics often take a shot at Anthonythasan – or, Shobhasakthi – as he is seen as one who has marketed his ex-combatant, refugee status for a step in the ladder. Those who saw in him a powerful protestant in his writing theorize of a retrogressive sidestep in his advent into cinema, seeing it as a betrayal of a Struggle with which he, too, was identified at one point, by going “right” into action-thriller film unveiled on red-carpeted Cannes. This, of course, is a debate I wish not to engage in, as the circumstances from which artistes like Shobhasakthi have emerged and the kind of gauntlet they have had to run barely to survive and live another day cannot be encapsulated on the whole by simple formulas of cost-benefit, or armchair politics. But, in symbolic terms, the struggle continues with Dheepan – be it in Sri Lanka or in France, as the struggle continues in Sri Lanka; fresh as it began just the other day.