The career of Tarsem Sing Dhandwar encompasses only five films since the year 2000, when his debut feature The Cell blew the minds of audiences. His films have all been exuberant audiovisual feasts, crafting indelible images that always work even when the storytelling falls flat. Whether it’s the dream imagery of his Jennifer Lopez thriller The Cell, the romantic surrealism of his passion project The Fall, the lush fairy tale beauty of Snow White riff Mirror Mirror, or the mythological grandiosity of Immortals, a new Tarsem film always promises something big, some grand vision that will take up residence in your brain and never leave. Dear Jassi, his first film in eight years, is notably different from all his previous films. His first film set in his home country of India, based on a shocking true story, is his most restrained film to date. There are no grand visual gestures here, no epic pageantry, no romantic exhilaration. There is just life, in all its everyday messiness. It’s also his most powerful film to date.
Dear Jassi is based on the real-life “honor killing” of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu (Jassi for short), who committed the unforgivable sin of being from a wealthy Punjab family and falling in love with Sukhwinder Singh Sidhu (Mithu for short), a poor rickshaw driver from a Jat Sikh family. Due to their youth and Jassi’s family trying to keep them apart (and also the use of sleeping pills), Jassi and Mithu were likened to Romeo and Juliet, and Amit Rai’s screenplay opens and closes just as Shakespeare’s play does: With a narrator telling us what to expect, and then what we should take away from the story. It’s the one fabulistic touch in the film, and even still, it is presented very simply, in one long take with no camera movement. The Fakir (Kanwar Grewal) sings to us about the story, preparing us for a tragic story about love between two young people even more beautiful than the actors who will be playing them, and warning that “a little poetic license is needed” in order to tell the story in the length of a film. He quickly introduces us to our cinematic Jassi (Pavia Sidhu) and Mithu (Yugam Sood). She is visiting family in Punjab and spies him at a sporting match. It’s love at first sight, and before long they are seeing each other in secret and exchanging letters after she returns to her home in Canada.
Sidhu and Sood are breathtakingly good as the central couple, and they have to be in order for the film to work. While not exactly anti-romantic, everything remains grounded in a way that keeps Jassi and Mithu’s courtship from being heightened in the way we expect from cinematic romances. The complete lack of score helps with this, but so does Brendan Galvin’s cinematography, which reserves its close-ups for rare, special moments of intimacy between the two. Their story is left to their words, as scenes of Jassi and Mithu living their lives half a world apart are soundtracked not by sweeping strings or pretty piano tinkles but their love letters. It is as if the film doesn’t want us to get too attached, knowing how the story is going to end. But the filmmaking choices are so involving that one can’t help getting swept up in their relationship. Long pans show us the beauty of the Indian countryside as the inarticulate Mithu tries to express his feelings for Jassi. The film’s version of Shakespeare’s famed balcony scene emphasizes the distance between the two lovers not only physically, but in terms of class, with Jassi looking down on Mithu from far away as he works on the pickles his family is making. The golden sunlight only emphasizes the beauty of the moment, making it difficult to not fall in love with these two falling in love with each other.
One of the paradoxes of Shakespeare’s play is that the teenage lovers are near-irredeemable idiots who are in part redeemed by the beautiful way in which they express their love to each other. In Dear Jassi, it is somewhat the opposite – even though the romance feels less romantic because of the lack of trappings we usually associate with cinematic romance, we pull for them anyway because of the simplicity of their love. It is treated as a cold, hard fact that Jassi and Mithu are in love, as incontrovertible a piece of evidence as the phone calls made by Jassi’s uncle and mother to the people who brutally beat Mithu and leave him for dead before kidnapping and murdering Jassi on her family’s orders. Even though we are told that this story will end in tragedy, the film lulls you into complacency for long stretches because we do nothing but live with these characters and their love for each other. It is not presented sentimentally, but rather plainly, as much a part of their daily lives as their jobs and family. The message is clear: Nothing should stand in the way of love, just as nothing should stand in the way of anyone’s pursuit of happiness, but social structures do in fact stand in the way of both of these things.
As the film goes on, the danger facing Jassi and Mithu becomes more and more apparent. The film actually begins in medias res, with Canadian police arriving at Jassi’s family home after her uncle has assaulted her. Throughout, there are warnings of how dangerous their relationship is, and we see how viciously the authorities treat the other young poor Sikh men in Mithu’s neighborhood. But the simple fact of Jassi and Mithu’s love blinds us to this just as it likely blinded them; we are aware of the potential danger but choose to ignore it in order to allow for happiness. But as soon as they marry in secret, the threats against Jassi and Mithu begin, and the physical violence ramps up, and then the legal problems start coming. For every step forward Jassi and Mithu make towards their life together, the world pushes them two steps back. It’s a slow but steady increase of tension that has the audience on high alert by the time the brutal third act is underway. There is danger around every corner, and given how much information that no one could have known has made its way back to Jassi’s family, it’s impossible to know who our young lovers can trust. The film’s last act is almost unbearably tense, in large part because the danger feels as real as the romance. As the noose tightens around Jassi and Mithu’s necks, we find ourselves clinging to their romance more and more, willfully forgetting the nature of the story. It is as if we are watching Romeo & Juliet for the first time, so wrapped up in the purity of their love that we cannot imagine it being snuffed out. But what happened to Jassi and Mithu in real life is not where the film takes the poetic license the Fakir sang about at the film’s start. When the inevitable end comes, it is truly awful to witness, the most brutal gut-punch of a tragic ending that cinema has seen in quite some time, leaving only one possible conclusion. The Fakir returns, sending the audience back into the world with a song about how God is found by those whose intentions are pure. The message is unmistakable: Honor killings are not pure of intent. They come only from hate, pridefulness, and shame, and only lead to ruin. Killing is not how one honors God, no matter what religious reasons one cites for doing so. The terrible fate of these two young people is proof.
In the hands of such a gifted storyteller as Tarsem, Dear Jassi transcends its genre, both as romance and as true-story tragedy. The film’s deliberate pace and stylistic restraint give it an almost documentary-like quality, yet it is unmistakable as pure cinema. Instead of using his maximalist style to tell a story that has a pure power all its own, he has instead scaled back, guiding the audience through the story with a gentle but firm hand. It is a film that proves his greatness as a filmmaker not just by virtue of its subtle craft, but by virtue of his choice to tell the story in this way. Tarsem could have easily turned Dear Jassi into a hyperkinetic Bollywood epic more in line with the style of his previous films. Instead, he knew that the most effective way to tell this story was to go in the opposite direction. In doing so, he has made his best film to date.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival where the film won the Platform Prize.