‘Dear Jassi’ Review: Tarsem Singh’s TIFF Platform Award Winner Is A Shattering Real-Life Tragedy [TIFF]

Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar ominously warned audiences at the world premiere of his Punjabi-language debut that it was a much more serious affair than they might be expecting. After all, the Romeo and Juliet framing in the festival notes and the film’s title pointed towards a young-love romantic melodrama. Instead, what unfolds is a shattering real-life tragedy—appalling on a scale audiences might scarcely be able to imagine. Romeo and Juliet got off easy compared to what befalls Jassi & Mithu in this factual story that lays bare the terrifying cost of class divisions, caste discrimination, and patriarchy in societies worldwide. 

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Dear Jassi” comes to us as a doubly surprising film—being the first Indian film by Hollywood director Tarsem (as he has been credited and known throughout his career). It is his sixth film overall but represents a career re-set the likes of which we rarely see. Not only is it not a fantastical mainstream venture like his other films, but it is also devoid of movie stars. His first five films had Jennifer Lopez, Lee Pace, Henry Cavill, Julia Roberts, and Ryan Reynolds, respectively, in the lead roles. “Dear Jassi” has two inexperienced performers headlining and is made in a rigorous, realist style more common in high-brow European art-house cinema than in either Hollywood or India. In fact, the formal exactitude and the proliferation of long takes and heavily directed master shots designate this film as something Michael Haneke or Michel Franco might have made. This is a gigantic leap in directorial accomplishment for the Indian-born filmmaker.

The emotional gut punch of the tragedy works as well as it does because of the extended time Tarsem spends setting up the love affair between Jassi (Pavia Sidhu) and Mithu (Yugam Sood). We first meet Jassi, a Canadian-Indian girl from a wealthy family, on vacation in India, visiting her relatives in their small rural town. She just about manages to speak the local Punjabi language but isn’t fluent by any means. Mithu, a buff and muscular youth, is a poor rickshaw driver and also an amateur athlete in the Indian contact sport of Kabaddi. Tarsem stages their first encounter as a classic meet-cute—he’s stripped to his boxers, sweaty and exerting himself in a combative kabaddi scuffle; she watches from the stands, cheering him on, taken by what she sees.

They are also neighbors; his humble, impoverished hovel is next to her palatial home. What follows are episodes of yearning and scrupulously chaste flirtation where they declare their undying love for each other. Such scenes might seem corny to Western viewers but are of a piece with the cultural and societal context in which the story takes place—meaning, this is how it would likely go down in that time and place. She moves back to Canada, and they begin a long-distance relationship, writing letters to each other—hence the film’s title. And yes, since the film is set in 2000, they write actual letters with pen and paper, and there are no cell phones or emails in sight. Their class differences are brought into relief by the fact that she can’t write Punjabi and writes her letters in English. He can’t read English and needs assistance in even reading them, let alone responding.

The pulverizing pressure from her family to get married in Canada leads Jassi to return back to India on false pretenses to forge a match with Mithu somehow. Jassi’s Indian cousin Charni has her own relationship going on with a lower-class pharmacy cashier. When Charni’s boyfriend visits the family home to ask for Charni’s hand in marriage at roughly the two-thirds mark, Tarsem shatters the placid surface of “Dear Jassi” to finally unload its dramatic import. The sound of a single gunshot – heard but deliberately not seen in Tarsem’s directorial scheme—is more hair-raising and terrifying than anything in a horror movie. Jassi and Charni’s family will not yield to their choice of partners under any circumstance, and the extent of blood-curdling misogyny, latent in all patriarchal class systems, is revealed to its fullest extent.

Tarsem opens the film with a bold narrative gesture—having a traditional Punjabi singer sing about the tragedy of Jassi and Mithu (without providing any details) in a long, unbroken shot as he pans to an empty building. What initially seems like a bit of ostentatious directorial preening turns out to be a masterstroke, as the devastating weight of that image hits the audience like a ton of bricks by the film’s conclusion. Broaching the tragedy in the opening shot also fills the entirety of “Dear Jassi” with mounting dread, though audiences might forget about it due to the gushing romantic rush of the first two-thirds.

Tarsem’s direction throbs with moral rigor and righteous anger previously not evident in his work and employs a similar strategy used in another one of the year’s stand-out dramas about an unspeakable injustice —“The Zone Of Interest.” The most distressing scenes in “Dear Jassi” are all the more harrowing because the violence occurs entirely off-screen; it is heard but not seen, just like in Jonathan Glazer’s film.

“Dear Jassi” is also to be admired for the screen-filling verisimilitude it achieves with location filming and accurate costume design. A far cry from Bollywood pics that make their way state-side and present a fantasy version of India, “Dear Jassi” represents India like it is—dusty, often dirty, bursting with crowds, and filled with eye-watering poverty. Pavia Sidhu and Yugam Sood give credit-worthy performances, essaying the halting blush of first love with uninhibited vulnerability. Sood is especially appealing in his guile-less innocence. Sidhu expertly navigates the Westerner-looking-in dynamics of Jassi and Mithu’s relationship—it is she who asks him out, proposes marriage, and demands intimacy as their relationship progresses.

Tarsem’s films haven’t always worked in the past but provided considerable visual interest. His untapped dramatic potential is finally brought to the fore in “Dear Jassi” in a powerful fashion. This startling about-turn might foster new admirers of his work when “Dear Jassi” makes its way to audiences. “Dear Jassi” unanimously won the Platform competition prize at TIFF and is currently seeking distribution. [A]

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