The recipient of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I said in my review, “French veteran Jacques Audiard‘s Dheepan is a muscularly directed dramatic thriller about the difficulties of starting over and the inevitability of violence. Clear-eyed, tightly wound, and cinematically and psychologically immersive, it’s a furious ride of a movie that actually has something to say.”
While at the festival I had the chance to sit down with the film’s two leads, Jesuthasan Antonythasan (playing Dheepan) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan (playing his wife Yalini) for a roundtable discussion. We discussed their initial reaction to the film, their personal background, their chemistry, and much more. Check out the full interview below and another here.
How was your reaction when you first saw the film?
Antonythasan: It was obviously an emotional, happy moment. I was doubly happy because, for the past 20 years, I’ve been writing about the struggles in Sri Lanka. So it’s really great to see that, through this film, those stories have found an international platform and can now reach more people.
When you saw the film, was it just like how you imagined it to be or were there differences?
Antonythasan: I’d read the script of course. And it’s a Jacques Audiard movie, so I pretty much knew what to expect.
Srinivasan: Yes, it’s the same because we had the script, but I also think it has evolved in a very subtle way that surprised us all in the movie. It was a very organic process which happened during the shoot and the period before that. To me personally, I discovered more about my character when I saw her on the big screen.
Did the conflict in your countries help you prepare for your performances?
Srinivasan: I’m Indian, not Sri Lankan, so I have not experienced war in my life. To me, both the Sri Lankan and the European backgrounds of this film were totally new. There’s nothing I could relate to or have lived through. I knew about the conflict in Sri Lanka because I lived in Chennai, which shares a political history with Sri Lanka. I’ve grown up with the news but have never been a part of it. So I could never say I know the pain, the grief, the conflict. That’s why the way I approached and created the character with Jacques has been different.
Antonythasan: There are a lot of similarities between the character’s life and my life. I was also in the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), I’m also a political refugee, I also lost a lot of family members in the war. I have been in the same situations as the character. So I’ve been able to use my life experience for the character and the acting, as I was able to imagine what the character’s thinking, feeling or what his intentions were.
Where do you call home now? Are you still in danger because of your past and current activities?
Antonythasan: It’s been 25 years since I left Sri Lanka. I’ve been a political refugee in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, before coming to France 22 years ago. When I first came to France, there were certain dangers from the side of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, because I was writing against both of them. Since the end of the war in 2009, there are no more threats from the LTTE. However, there may still be threats from the Sri Lankan government. That’s why the refugee status I have in France strictly prohibits me from traveling back to Sri Lanka, for my own safety.
Do you see your experiences as a refugee often reflected in movies?
Antonythasan: I don’t really remember seeing movies like this. There’s the Hollywood film The Terminal and some French-speaking African films that I’ve watched which kind of reflected my experiences, but it’s quite rare.
How do you feel about being in a male-dominated film?
Srinivasan: You can take it in any way, but are we not in a male-dominated world? And I see my character Yalini — not because it was me who played it — as the life force in the family. The movie, to me, is more about the relationship between the three main characters. She’s kind of steering and bringing life in their fake family, in her own way. So… it came as a surprise to me when you described the film as male-dominated.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the film for you?
Srinivasan: There were a couple of scenes where I needed to not just cry but go much deeper. Only then would it be true to the character of Yalini. To achieve that, you must let go, be naked and bare your soul to let the character take over. These soulfully demanding scenes, were, more than the physical stuff, the hardest part for me.
How did you work on the chemistry between the two of you?
Srinivasan: It just happened. The first time we had an improvisation, I didn’t know him much and vice versa, but we just clicked.
I gathered that your livelihood comes from your writing. Can you make a good living as a Tamil author?
Antonythasan: I’ve been writing for 20 years now. I’ve written about 15 books and novels but I’ve never really earned anything from my writing. I only spent a lot of money on publishing. There aren’t a lot of Tamil readers. Even the best Tamil authors get only 1200 copies published. For my livelihood I do various kinds of odd jobs.
There aren’t many French movies about the Tamil community. Do you hope this film will open a new discussion in the French society about the Tamil community?
Antonythasan: Yes. A lot of people here don’t even know why there’s a Sri Lankan refugee community in France. They just don’t understand why these people are here, especially when Sri Lanka has never been a French colony. So in some small way, this movie does help clarify a few things. Today, there are still about 20,000-30,000 stateless Tamil refugees in France.
As an author yourself, was it hard for you to be the actor and have no say in what the story should be about?
Antonythasan: Well, the story was better than what I could have written, so no complaints there.
What opportunities do you have as an Indian actress to break into western movies?
Srinivasan: I honestly don’t know. I do wish to work more in movies now that I have my first film credit. To me it doesn’t matter which part of the world it is, but I’d really like to continue working as a film actress.
Dheepan won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and will be released in the United States by Sundance Selects on May 13th. See our festival coverage below.