By Pahull Bains
“Tear down the mosque, the temple, everything in sight. But don't break a human heart. For that is where God resides."
Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s latest film Dear Jassi opens with these lines by Bulleh Shah, sung with a deep ache by Sufi singer Kanwar Grewal. Standing amidst a vast field in rural Punjab at sunrise, Grewal introduces the tale of star-crossed lovers that is about to unfold, warning the audience that this real-life romance ended in utter tragedy. The soulful overture is a promising start but it gives way to a film that feels paint-by-the-numbers in comparison.
Known for directing fantastical sci-fi spectacles such as The Cell and The Fall, this film marks Dhandwar’s first foray into realism. It’s based on the true story of young Indian-Canadian woman Jassi, whose mother ordered her kidnapping and murder after discovering that she had secretly married a rickshaw driver named Mithu, whom she met while visiting family in Jagraon, Punjab. Dhandwar read about the horrific murder when it made headlines back in 2000, and said in the post-screening Q&A at TIFF (where the film had its world premiere) that the idea of making a film about the tragic tale had been a “little monkey on [his] back ever since."
Dhandwar dutifully traces the steps of Jassi and Mithu’s love story, from first meeting to long-distance courtship (Jassi returns home to Canada soon after they meet) to secret marriage. There are plenty of obstacles along the way, not least the issue of immigration. Mithu doesn’t have a passport, let alone a visa for Canada. Meanwhile, Jassi’s wealthy family is already looking for suitors for her and Mithu will not be an acceptable proposition. He’s poor and illiterate, and has a police case registered against him—a confusing element of the story that’s insufficiently explained, particularly for audiences that may not be aware of Punjab’s fraught history of terrorism. Jassi and Mithu met in 1994 but the false case against him appears to be from the late ’80s, a time when bearded, turbaned Sikh men were routinely picked up by police under suspicion of being Khalistani terrorists. Mithu seems to have been the victim of such an incident and has cut his hair and shed any outward appearance of being a Sikh as a result.
Dhandwar takes great pains to depict the slow burn of Jassi and Mithu’s romance over the course of many letters, phone calls and meetings over a number of years. Like any couple, they have their share of coy flirtations, angry outbursts and jealous misunderstandings, all of which help paint a fuller picture of them as individuals. But other characters in the film are frustratingly opaque. After a violent showdown with her family in British Columbia, where she lives, Jassi flees to Punjab to reunite with Mithu. It is during this trip that her mother and uncle back in Canada give the order for the couple to be killed. At no point in the lead up to this moment does Dhandwar attempt to examine the classist and patriarchal mindset that could lead to such an extreme reaction. Both mother and uncle have barely any screen time, and though we see more of a third ruthless family member (this time, an uncle in Jagraon) who goes on to play a significant role in the arrest and torture of Mithu’s friends, he also remains utterly inscrutable as a character.
All three people are pivotal to the story but reduced to one-dimensional villains. It’s unclear why Dhandwar heightened these characters almost to the point of cliche while striving for realism in the rest of the film. The tone seesaws between restrained and melodramatic, creating an uneven viewing experience that perhaps stronger writing or performances could have saved. It’s hard not to be reminded of Romeo + Juliet, a film by another director with a proclivity for grand set pieces and sweeping epics, Baz Luhrmann. He leaned into his strengths for his adaptation, with results that are intoxicating, propulsive and utterly unforgettable. It helps that, in Shakespeare’s tale, the long-held animosity between the two families is established at the outset. The warring factions are key to the story, providing much-needed context for the couple’s doomed love.
By contrast, Dhandwar’s film feels oddly empty. It fails to effectively establish either the regressive environment that gives rise to the danger Jassi and Mithu find themselves in, or the depth of their love. Without these crucial elements to help ground the story, the film proves hard to connect with emotionally, even in its most stomach-turning moments.
Roger Ebert wrote of Dhandwar’s 2008 film The Fall: “[he] has made a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it." Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Dear Jassi, which feels like a rote retelling of a tragic love story that, in the hands of a masterful visual storyteller like Dhandwar, could have been so much more.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED21.09.2023 | 10:09 AM IST