Ever since director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar made the transition from music videos to feature filmmaking, his films have been unfairly maligned with the same talking points. Critics are quick to praise his exquisite visuals, but lament that the style often outweighs the substance. Thankfully, the man who brought the world films like The Cell, The Fall, and Mirror Mirror is back to quiet his doubters once and for all with his latest film, Dear Jassi.
Presenting arguably his most visually restrained but emotionally moving work yet, Dear Jassi packs one heck of a knockout punch. It tells the harrowing true-life Romeo and Juliet tale of a couple who struggle to stay together as forces around them attempt to keep them apart. Set primarily in India in the 1990s, the film picks up when Jassi (Pavia Sidhu), who is visiting family in Jagraron, meets Mithu (Yugam Sood), a rickshaw driver who lives nearby.
Immediately smitten with the buff young man, Jassi soon becomes consumed with finding various ways, including employing the help of her cousin, to spend as much time with Mithu as possible. Blinded by the bright light of possibility that shines when new love arises, Jassi believes she can make their budding relationship work despite her returning to Canada in just a few days. In the eyes of the young couple, all they need is for Mithu to get a passport so that he can come visit her and, hopefully, apply for a visa.
Of course, being together will be much more challenging than overcoming the physical distance between them. One big roadblock is that Mithu is from a lower caste system. Not only does his status on the social pecking order impact his education, as he was never taught to read or write in Punjabi, but it has led to several run-ins with a police force that frequently abuses the immense power it wields.
As the months go on, and the two remain apart, they become more desperate to find a solution to their problems, even if it means going behind their family’s back and bribing corrupt officials. However, in a place like India, where there are eyes everywhere, one’s secrets can only be kept hiding hidden for so long.
Using two musicians to serve as the chorus for this dramatic tragedy, Singh Dhandwar skillfully reveals the ways love can make people act irrationally. From the couple’s perspective, one sees the craziness in how short-sighted and reckless they are. Jassi demands that Mithu “show some guts” and take risks in the name of love, but rarely considers just how difficult it is for him to function in a society that constantly views him as lesser-than.
It is through navigating their unfair society that we see the darker side of Mithu and Jassi’s love. While the first half of the film lulls audiences with its charming romantic rhythms, the director shatters this dreamy mirror to show the deep rot behind it. Dear Jassi turns the tension up to eleven when the couple’s secret is exposed, offering a blistering commentary on how ridiculous and hypocritical society’s obsession with status can be, especially when it uses corrupt and murderous means to maintain it.
Although Singh Dhandwar tactfully handles the darker beats, most of the violence occurs off-screen. The mundanity of the societal response is just as haunting as the acts themselves. By juxtaposing the loving way Mithu’s poor family embraces Jassi versus the vengeful ways Jassi’s upper-class family reacts, the tragedy in the film feels even more heart-wrenching.
By grounding his visuals – the lush, fantastical images he is known for replaced with simple pops of colour throughout – Singh Dhandwar is able to bring the audience deep into the streets of Jagraron. He lets his camera linger on the mundane tasks that establish the divide between the haves and have-nots. One can practically feel the congestion in the traffic, hear the excitement on the Kabaddi court, and smell the goods being sold at the market.
All this makes for a vibrant and moving drama that one does not easily forget. Dear Jassi is a powerful tale of the unwavering flame of love and the brutal injustice that often tries to extinguish it.