The hero of the 2015 Palme d'Or film Dheepan is Anthony Thasan, 47, a former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militant. To friends, and fans of his fiction in Tamil, he is known as Shoba Sakthi. On some days, he answers to the name Anthony X.
In his first book, Gorilla, a literary sensation in the Tamil underground when first published in 2001, he is Rocky Raj, the fictionalised alter-ego of his fighting years. He lives in Paris - his status there being that of an immigrant - and has washed dishes in fast-food joints and worked in supermarkets. The information he offers about himself in this conversation is precise and unsentimental. His contiguous identities seem like different floors of a building without stairs. Perhaps they are a way to fob off knocks to his inner core. In an email interview, the writer-actor talks of his journey from Sri Lanka to Paris, and landing the leading part in auteur Jacques Audiard's immigrant film.
Why did you join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam?
I joined the LTTE when I was 16 years old. Though there were many armed pro-Tamil groups at that time, the LTTE was the only guerrilla outfit that showed an ability to go the distance. LTTE's motto - of achieving an egalitarian, socialist Tamil Eelam - also impressed me a lot.
What was Prabhakaran like as a leader?
I met Prabhakaran only once, at a public meeting. Prabhakaran started working towards the freedom of Tamils at age 17. But the path he chose to realise his goal was violence. He lacked tolerance. As days passed, he transformed from being the head of a freedom movement to a warlord who used military tactics without any compromise. Though he said he fought for the freedom of the Tamils, during the final stages of the war, he had begun to use them as hostages. He is also the major reason why at least 1 lakh Tamils were killed in the final war. He is not a leader to be revered.
Ultimately you had to leave the LTTE and escape Sri Lanka. Which decision was harder?
I felt free when I quit the LTTE. I felt relaxed; I had moved away from the wrong path. I never thought of abandoning my country. But the relentless war during the IPKF's [Indian Peace Keeping Force's] stint in my country, and the Indian Army's insensitivity, the way in which they killed my fellow citizens, forced me to abandon my country and escape. The day I left my country was the darkest day of my life.
How did you end up in France?
I left alone, escaping to Hong Kong and then making my way to Thailand. I spent three-and-a-half years in Thailand as a refugee and all the while I plotted my departure to Europe. Refugees were not treated well by the Thailand government. They neither gave us visas nor work permits. In 1993, I managed to reach France. It had taken me five years to get there.
Why was India not an option?
I was afraid to enter India as, at the time, India's war against the LTTE was at its peak. Sri Lankan refugees were being treated like criminals in India.
Your first film was banned in India. How did that happen?
Sengadal [The Dead Sea] was my first film. I joined its crew as screenplay and dialogue writer. I also gave a guest appearance. The censor board refused to issue a certificate as the film touched some raw nerves due to the way it directly criticised the Indian and Sri Lankan governments. However, due to director Leena Manimekalai's persistence and her legal battle, the film finally got the certificate. Sengadal is the only Tamil film to have been screened at the 42nd International Film Festival of India.
What is your current status in France? What is the most difficult part of the immigrant life?
I'm still a political refugee. Yes, there is racism in this country too, but my life is secure. There are no boundaries to individual freedom. But I don't have any political rights here. Even though I'm a political person, I have never cast a vote. This is unacceptable.
How do you earn a living in France?
I'm a full-time writer. But that is not enough for my bread and butter. To make ends meet, I work part-time at restaurants and supermarkets. After I exhaust the salary I received for this film, I'll take up these chores again.
How did you get picked for Dheepan?
After the screenplay for Dheepan was completed, Jacques Audiard's casting directors searched for suitable actors in Sri Lanka, India, Europe and Canada. Through my friend Kumaran Valavan, a theatre director who studied in France and lives in Puducherry, the casting directors in India heard about me. This is how I became associated with the film. The experience I gathered in childhood by acting or writing street plays and staging them helped me during the film, but it was only through the director's eyes that I understood the character of Dheepan. The director always discussed the scenes with the actors and allowed us to improvise. This heightened my involvement in the movie. I was encouraged to such an extent that I felt this was 'my film' and I had to do it well.
A still from Dheepan, which tells the tale of a former LTTE militant who flees the Sri Lankan civil war and ends up a refugee in France. (Getty images)
Are there similarities between Dheepan's life and yours?
Dheepan and I have a lot in common. We have both served in the LTTE. We both entered France using fake passports. We have roamed its streets as refugees. The character is not a figment of imagination but is the story of every Sri Lankan Tamil refugee. Though the problems we faced are similar, the way in which we resolved the issues differed. That is why I mentioned at a press conference that Dheepan and I are 50% similar. I can take credit for the books I wrote, but as far as the film is concerned, director Jacques Audiard was the captain and I jumped on to the ship he was sailing and reached a shore.
Being a writer, did you contribute to the screenplay of the film?
I translated some of the dialogue from French to Sri Lankan Tamil [the Tamil characters in the film speak Tamil]. Sometimes, during a shoot, if the director asked me to do so, I improvised on some of the dialogue on the spot. These were my only contributions to the film as a writer. Literature, cinema and acting are all intertwined. As a storyteller, I drew on my literary skills to conjure up the character Dheepan in my imagination, to play him.
It must have been challenging for you to return to your past as an LTTE fighter in the film. But was playing a romantic hero more difficult?
As I don't have enough time to worry about the new challenges I'm facing in my life, it is foolish to think about my painful past. I simply don't have time for it. But one day during the shoot, I was struck by something my director said. He shook his head and said to me: 'Anthony, you don't know how to smile.'
I have completed my new novel. It talks about the post-war condition of Sri Lanka. It will be released in Chennai in July. After that, I have plans to start my dream project, a novel about the travails of the refugees who come to Europe.
Is the life of an Asian immigrant more difficult than that of immigrants from, say, France's former colony of Algeria?
Even though it is true that all refugees face similar problems, it is also true that Muslim refugees are watched and discriminated against more.
Do you now have family in France?
I have not married yet. I'm not planning to marry at all. I'm against the concept of 'family'. I believe what Karl Marx said about family being a mini-state. Simply put: I am against the idea of dominance.
(Translated from Tamil by Vignesh Radhakrishnan)