Simplicity serves director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar well. The India-born filmmaker, whose resumé includes landmark music videos for the likes of R.E.M. and Deep Forest, has tended toward the stylistically baroque in such films as The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, Mirror Mirror and Self/less. Now, with his first feature in eight years, he has returned to the country of his birth and made his simplest and most powerful effort to date. Receiving its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Dear Jassi has the feel of a timeless folktale, made all the more unbearably sad because of its basis in fact.
That feeling is reinforced by the film’s framing device, in which renowned Punjabi singer/composer Kanwar Grewal introduces and narrates the tale, his music giving it the feel of something that has been passed down for generations. In reality, the tragic story that inspired the film began in the 1990s — when the film, much of which features Punjabi dialogue with subtitles, is set as well.
The Bottom Line
Elemental in its power.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Cast: Pavia Sidhu, Yugam Sood, Kanwar Grewal, Gourav Sharma, Sukhwinder Chahal, Sunita Dhir, Baljinder Kaur
Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar
Screenwriter: Amit Rai
2 hours 12 minutes
The young protagonists are 19-year-old Jassi (Pavia Sidhu), a wealthy Indian girl whose family has relocated from Punjab, India, to Canada, and Mithu (Yugam Sood), a handsome but poor rickshaw driver whom she meets while back in India visiting her relatives. It’s love at first sight, with Jassi becoming enthralled by Mithu when she first sees him playing a local game. Despite their very different social and financial positions, the two can’t take their eyes off each other, at first only exchanging silent stares before a tentative courtship begins. It isn’t long until Jassi declares, “I want to stay here forever.”
Alas, it’s not meant to be, as she’s forced to return home to Canada, where she sends Mithu a series of letters, which he enlists the help of a local schoolteacher to read to him. The teacher, embarrassed by the outpourings of fervent love expressed in the missives, turns around while he reads them so he and Mithu don’t have to look at each other.
Secretly taking money from her family, Jassi sends Mithu the funds to procure a passport and a plane ticket to Canada to visit her. But he falls victim to crooked travel agents and loses the money. She returns for another visit instead, and has Jassi procure sleeping pills with which she secretly drugs her relatives so he can visit her while they’re knocked out. But she soon becomes very aware of the dangers of their relationship when her uncle shoots and wounds her cousin’s prospective suitor and the family compound becomes heavily fortified.
The two secretly get married, but things go from bad to worse when Jassi’s father suffers a fatal heart attack and her mother finds out about the relationship. Mithu is arrested and accused of rape, and it’s only the beginning of a series of calamities that end in tragedy.
Based on the reporting of Canadian journalist Fabian Dawson, the screenplay by Amit Rai smartly focuses mainly on the two young central figures, with many of the adults depicted as violent, abusive or hysterical. The story would seem unbelievable were it not true, and for the fact that many similar events have been reported around the world. Employing a far more classical filmmaking style than previously, Dhandwar relates it with striking visual simplicity, if at times indulgently in terms of too-leisurely pacing and some repetitiveness.
Nonetheless, the main characters are thoroughly believable in their heightened emotional states, coming across like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet in their star-crossed romance (a sleeping potion even figures prominently in the storyline). The relatively unknown lead actors — this is Sood’s acting debut, while Sidhu has appeared in such TV series as The Flash and Cruel Summer — deliver compelling performances that keep us thoroughly immersed in Jassi and Mithu’s insular lovestruck world marked by a naiveté that becomes their undoing. The violent climactic sequences, superbly staged by the filmmaker, will leave you shaken.