In the opening scene of Dheepan, beaten soldiers of the Tamil Tigers are burning their war dead. They have been brutally defeated by state forces in the Sri Lankan civil war. As the funeral pyre burns in the jungle clearing, one man quietly changes out of his uniform and into tattered civilian clothes. He has had enough of the killing; it’s time to get out.
The film tells the story of three Tamil refugees. The former soldier meets up with two total strangers at a camp — a woman and a young girl. They have all lost their families in the war, and agree to pretend to be a family themselves in the hope that it will help them gain asylum in Europe. The soldier adopts the name of the dead man whose passport he has acquired — Dheepan.
I can think of few films where I have started rooting for, and fearing for, the protagonists so soon after first being introduced to them. The terrible vulnerability of the impromptu “family” is constantly underlined. Their emigration plunges them into a dark, threatening world. Police sirens scream through the Paris night; growling dogs lurch from the gloom of graffitied stairwells; ominous gunshots are heard in the night. The refugees are housed in a relentlessly grim housing estate on the outskirts of Paris, which is dominated by feuding drug gangs. Dheepan is given a job as the caretaker, the young girl is enrolled in a local school and, after a tortuous period trapped in the tiny flat, Dheepan’s “wife” gets a job as a carer.
One of the great successes of the film is to show how precarious and frightening is the situation of the refugees, without in anyway infantilising them or diminishing them as rounded, complex characters. All of the characters have their own inner worlds, and continue to have their particular aspirations. The most interesting character is the woman pretending to be Dheepan’s wife. Yalini, brilliantly played by the Indian actor Kalieaswari Srinivasan, is trapped in a family role that she knows is false. She is enraged, guilty and conflicted about having to be a mother to a daughter she didn’t want and doesn’t even know. She simultaneously longs for the relative freedom of the white French women she sees walking past her window, and also toys with the idea of wearing a hijab (despite not being Muslim) because it might help her fit in with other migrant women on the estate. Her rage at her situation is the beating heart of this film.
The plot takes a very dramatic turn at the end of the film. Without wanting to give too much away, the latent violence of the film comes to the fore and things escalate very quickly. In my opinion, the drama steps up so quickly in the final 20 minutes that it unbalances the piece as a whole, and begins to detract from what is otherwise a very subtle portrait of the refugee experience.
Nevertheless, Dheepan is a wonderful, moving film that reminds us that as socialists and as human beings we owe our solidarity to those trying to win their safety and freedom, against the odds.