After making waves in the festival circuit, Ladj Ly’s hard-hitting political drama “Les Misérables” is releasing in India. As part of the promotions, Alexis Manenti (co-screenwriter and one of the main protagonists) and actor Omar Soumare were in Delhi, recently.
The first thing that strikes about the French film is its title, inspired by Victor Hugo’s classic novel. “The film’s major connection to the Victor Hugo novel is that it is set in Montfermeil, a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris, where an important part of the classic novel is set. So even after 150 years the place stills suffers from poverty,” reveals Manenti.
Soumare agrees that the title does create a sense of curiosity among the audiences owing to obvious reasons.
“The people want to find out if it’s a modern retelling of the same story or not. So, the title does help at some level. But I think that ultimately the success of the movie is because of what it offers not because of its title,” asserts Soumare who feels that the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t take position for the police or for the population.
“It shows that police is also the victim of the political situation. Also, the policemen are underpaid but they try to do their job. But the social tensions and political pressures are so intense that it becomes very hard for them,” adds Soumare.
While, Hugo’s novel offered a critique of a French society essentially comprising French people, Ladj Ly’s examines the plight of the immigrant population in Montfermeil. “What has changed is that earlier there were all French people but now the place has a lot of immigrants, especially of African or Arabic ethnicities. But, the problems they face are more or less the same. So, the film talks about poverty and the present situation. What makes the situation worse is the violence, and cops provoking people. As a result there are riots against the police towards the end of the film,” reveals Manenti while lamenting about the loss of life and property in the recent Delhi riots about which he got to read in the newspapers.
“Les Misérables” is actually based on a short film of the same name made by Ladj Ly about three years back. “The director Ladj Ly is a friend of mine. We started 20 years ago doing some short films. Now, around three years back he asked me to write a short film with him. He also offered me a part in it. Since the short film tasted a lot of success at the festival circuit, a producer came on board and asked us to make a feature film on the short one. So that’s when we started to expand the screenplay. It took us six months to write it. It has the same basic story with same central characters but the end is not the same,” explains Manenti who won the award for Best Male Newcomer for the film at the recent César Awards.
Keeping it real
Manenti, who plays a cop in the film, trained with real cops to prepare for his part. “My character Chris is a bad cop. He is violent, arrogant, racist and corrupt. I let Ladj write scenes for me which added an element of surprise to Chris. Also, on the sets, I was just the actor and let Ladj take care of the briefing and other tasks. It allowed me to focus entirely on my acting. I watched a lot of movies about cops. Also, I had some training with the cops in order to understand how they walk, how they work, and the words they use, their methods, technicalities and procedures involved,” reveals Manenti.
Soumare’s preparation, on the other hand, was pretty straight forward. “I play a character called Macha who works for the street mayor from the suburb. He is not the real mayor and uses street kids for all kinds of shady activities. He is half-gangster, half-leader . My character is basically his right-hand man. Although, I don’t have many scenes with Chris in the movie, there is an inherent dislike between the two of our characters. My preparation was simple. I just stuck to the basics,” recounts Soumare.
Manenti opines that the film’s highly political nature and hard-hitting subject made it less appealing to the Oscar jury in comparison to some of its competitors. “Our film is not afraid to highlight the tension between the police and the migrant population. Also, it questions the responsibility of the government towards its people. Maybe, the Academy preferred ‘Parasite’ because though it also talks about poverty, it is not as political as ‘Les Miserables’. Also, perhaps, it’s a part of success of ‘Parasite’ that it’s not so realistic,” sums up Manenti.