“I don’t think
you can call me a child soldier, because I wanted to join the movement,”
Shobasakthi told me once. That movement was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam. His first novel, translated and published in English as Gorilla (2001;
2008), was based on his teenage exploits, an exercise in auto-fiction as he
termed it. The former guerilla is the real deal: idealist, soldier, refugee,
writer and, now, actor, a man of parts hard to define in one sentence. He took
to the gun for a cause but he also chose to walk away, risking a traitor's
fate, the wrath of Colombo, and the subsequent struggle to remake his life from
the bottom up.
After he left the LTTE, Shobasakthi was a wanted man—both by the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers. He managed to leave the country and get to Thailand from where he moved to France as a refugee. His next book to be translated and published in English was the powerful Traitor (2004; 2010), where he explored the lives of people caught in a conflict and the impact the daily negotiation of violence has on their lives.
This year, his collection of short stories—The MGR Murder Trial—has been translated into English and a new Tamil novel is out in July. But it is not his writings that have put him in the spotlight. Shobasakthi (real name Antonythasan Jesuthasan), who has worked at a supermarket and as a dishwasher when he isn’t living on the dole, found himself walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival last week, as the male lead of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. It tells the story of three Tamil refugees, strangers who pretend to be a family to gain asylum in France. The film scored what some have termed an upset win, taking the highest honours—the Palme d’Or—bringing Shobasakthi a rare kind of glamour. These are excerpts from a telephonic conversation that covered his work, acting, politics and more.
I was surprised to see
you credited by your real name. Was there any reason for that?
Well, no real reason. In fact when we were shooting in London, they booked my ticket under the name Shobasakthi and that caused a lot of chaos. Actually, that was also a problem when I was travelling with Sengadal (a 2011 film by Leena Manimekalai that he co-wrote) to various film festivals. The invites were in the name of Shobasakthi but my official name is Anthonythasan. So when they asked me how I would like to be credited in Dheepan, I decided to go with my real name.
How did you come to
act in Dheepan?
The director was searching for actors across the world. I had done a small role in Sengadal so a friend suggested I audition for the part.
something you were always interested in? Was it a fantasy to be an actor?
Oh no, not a fantasy or anything. I have always been interested in cinema, theatre and acting but I am a writer first and foremost. I have done koothu and therukoothu and written scripts. In fact, a play I wrote was recently staged in Toronto. So I was interesting in acting and finally got a good opportunity through this film.
The audition just involved meeting them and speaking. I was given a situation and asked to perform. It was very brief. Only recently did I find out—when Audiard gave an interview—that he had decided to cast me as soon as we met. Audiard and his father are very big names in French cinema and I had heard of them. Kalieaswari Srinivasan (the female lead, a Chennai-based theatre artiste), and I were already friends, so it was a very good team that came together. We struggled in the cold and fog but we did it happily.
About 80 per cent of
the film is in Tamil. Did you help with the script?
The script was written in French and Audiard doesn’t speak Tamil so we would discuss the script and the dialogue and speak the dialogue in Tamil ourselves. There was a lot of freedom.
You said the character
of Dheepan is 50 per cent autobiographical for you. What was
it like performing such a role? Did it bring back unpleasant memories or
The character and I are very similar. We have similar backgrounds but the way we solve problems is very different. Almost everything he goes through in the film, I have experienced, so it was helpful for me to be able to dig into those experiences. But we cannot keep old problems in mind and relive them, especially when we have new problems to deal with. Dheepan and I are different in that I came here as a different man and changed myself and my political thinking. Dheepan is a violent man and he remains violent and struggles with being a civilian.
Did you have the
experience of having to form ‘family’ with strangers? What was it like?
I live with my siblings now. But when I first came I had to share space with strangers. In small rooms, sometimes eight people would share and sleep, men and women. So I have experienced that as well.
When I spoke to
you a few years ago, you were living on the dole and you told me you only
needed money for cigarettes and food. What was it like for someone like that to
go to Cannes and walk the red carpet?
I was unemployed for a year before the film happened. A funny thing happened when I came back from Cannes to Paris. I was at the metro train station and I usually don’t buy tickets because tickets are very expensive.
Wouldn’t you get
Well, if I was going to work I would buy a ticket but otherwise it’s extremely expensive and I have 20 years experience of this. But this time, some officers were there and they were looking at me and smiling. And I thought, now, my losses have started. There has been a lot of coverage of Cannes over the past three days and they must have recognised me so I had to buy a ticket this time (laughs).
Some critics, at The
Guardian for instance, seem disappointed Dheepan was
selected. What are your thoughts on that?
Really? I didn’t know. People were saying that it had a good chance of winning. There are 19 films in competition and we were they only karupargal (black guys) in the auditorium. There were some Asians but that was it. And Audiard is a very political filmmaker. The jury made the decision.
Do you think the film
will help the French view of migration?
The film is about refugees. It provides a view of what life is like for refugees, the unemployed, life in slums and relationships between people who live in those circumstances but it is a love story of three people born of war.
After the Charlie
Hebdo shooting, there was a lot of discussion on free speech and Charlie
Hebdo’s portrayal of minorities and immigrants. As a French resident and an
immigrant/refugee what is your position?
Free speech has to respect all equally, so it should be for abuse. There are different perspectives. However, violence is never a response. Regardless of the cartoons, the French public is very tolerant, very invested in human rights and basic rights for all.
But the French
government is restricting people from wearing the veil.
See, all things are created by men and forced on women. However, what the government did was wrong, but the people are very tolerant.
What is your view of Sri Lanka right now given the new government?
It is much better now. There are no more murders or disappearances but the political solution for Tamils still needs to be discussed. I am hopeful for change. Not extravagantly so, but cautiously. The 13th Amendment needs to be discussed. This government won with Tamil votes and I think it is a good time. But your people will try and spoil it (laughs).
My people? Tamil Nadu
You’ve said that is
still not safe for you to go back, though.
I can’t go back because of my refugee status. But if I go back it could only be to settle down and open a tea shop or something. There is still no freedom to write and speak and as I am a writer only when that happens can I think of going back.
So much of your
writing appears to deal with conflict. How has the end of the Sri Lankan civil
war affected your work?
I don’t know why people think I write only about Sri Lanka.
Maybe that perception
is based on what has been translated in English?
Perhaps. I have always written on a variety of topics such as caste, sex and gender and equality but people seem to think I write only about war.
You have been very
critical of the Tamil diaspora, and having written against the Tigers and the
government, were considered an outsider. Has the Tamil diaspora moved on? Has
your position in the community changed since the war ended?
First, no discussion of the diaspora has affected the people there. People in Sri Lanka are very clear that they don’t want war. They no longer have a narrow view and are open to a broader Sri Lankan identity. The diaspora Tamils are all foreign citizens, and a majority, like most people, are caught up in their daily lives and don’t care for politics. The members of the diaspora who engage with the media and speak publicly, they still want war.
Recently I went to a Tamil wedding here and towards the end of the wedding, when everyone was dancing, they played a catchy song about how Prabhakaran would come back and finish Sri Lanka!
As to my position in the diaspora, I am still not accepted because I attack the culture, because I talk about women’s rights and casteism. These things hurt them but I do it anyway. I like to do it.
Would you like to
For me writing is important. I won’t act in a commercial movie but if there is something like Dheepan, then I might act.
How do you write? You
used to blog quite regularly. Do you still blog?
I think and plan for a long time and argue with myself. The actual writing only takes two to three months. Political writings are easier because I keep track of events. As for blogging, who blogs these days? (laughs) Everything happens on Facebook now.
Other than the film,
what have you been up to?
Well, I wrote a play that was staged in Canada. I also wrote a script for a movie about Tamils living in Canada to be shot there. Since I worked on the film—the government has minimum wages—I will receive support for the next eight months. It’s money taken out of my wages anyway.
And your next book, is
it in English?
It’s in Tamil and it’s coming out in July. Someone has to decide to take it up for translation. It’s fiction set post-conflict.