Antonythasan Jesuthasan: from Tamil Tiger to leading man

As a teenager, Antonythasan Jesuthasan fought in Sri Lanka’s civil war. After 23 years living in exile, art imitated life when he starred in French director Jacques Audiard’s thriller Dheepan. He speaks to Cindy Sasha.

How did your personal experience help you play the part of Deephan?

I am a refugee. Like the character in the film I came to France. I am also an ex-Tamil Tiger fighter. Like him, when I came to France I faced a lot of trouble, and had to work illegally. But the character Deephan experiences great violence in France, that’s a difference between us.

What are your greatest passions in life?

Reading and writing.

What is your earliest memory of Sri Lanka?

I was 20 when I left Sri Lanka but I still have memories of the sea, war and bad things like prison.

Do you think literature and films can inspire social and political change?

Mahatma Ghandi said that when he was young he saw a play that changed his life. I read Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother. This book changed me. I read a lot of Russian literature and went on to join the Communist Party.

When I came out of prison in Colombo and really saw Singhalese people for the first time, I knew they are not our enemies

What do you think laid at the base of the long civil war in Sri Lanka between the state and the Tamil Tigers. Was it political or religious?

It was a racist war waged by the Singhalese state – it was state terrorism. I am a Tamil, but I have no quarrel with Singhalese people. When I was 19 years old, I came out of prison in Colombo and really saw Singhalese people for the first time. I saw them suffering too, marginalized and poor, living under bridges. That changed my view. Then I knew they are not our enemies.

Are you in close contact with people back in Sri Lanka? Do you think you will ever return?

Yes. I still have family in Sri Lanka. I speak to my mum every day. She still lives in the same village, Allaipiddy, on the northern island of Velanaitivu.

I am waiting for a chance to go back. When I first left, I thought I’d be back within two years. Here I am, 25 years later.

There’s a new government now. We don’t have freedom of expression but some progressive changes are happening. Maybe I’ll get to go back in a couple of years.

Dheepan was reviewed in the April 2016 issue of New Internationalist. It is available to download from YouTube.

Header image (c) Cindy Sasha