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India’s Tarsem Singh brings dark love story to Toronto film fest

Indian director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, known for his award-winning music videos and visually arresting fantasy features, unveiled his first movie in eight years at the Toronto film festival — a shocking true-crime story about love, class and murder in 1990s Punjab.

“Dear Jassi” is Singh’s first-ever film set in his home country and, in an interview with AFP, he explained how he waited for just the right time to make it.

The 62-year-old Singh first heard the real-life tale of star-crossed love — a Canadian-born girl from a wealthy Punjabi family meets a rickshaw driver while visiting relatives in India — more than 20 years ago, and the idea never left him.

“I gave my brother a call and said, ‘We either make the story right now, or we wait at least two decades for it to become retro.’ This was not a subject matter that was going to get solved quickly,” he told AFP.

At that time, Singh was already a known commodity in Hollywood: his dreamlike video for REM’s seminal hit “Losing My Religion” won six MTV Video Music Awards in 1991, including Video of the Year.

He went on to direct Jennifer Lopez in the sci-fi horror flick “The Cell” (2000) and other features including “The Fall” (2006), the Snow White-based “Mirror Mirror” starring Julia Roberts in 2012, and “Self/less” with Ryan Reynolds (2015).

But the heartbreaking tale of Jassi and Mithu remained on his to-do list, and a meeting just before Covid-19 hit with screenwriter Amit Rai, who he said was “possessed” with the story, resulted in a script.

Singh insisted on not using stars in the film — Pavia Sidhu (Jassi) had some acting experience, and Yugam Sood (Mithu) is a university student making his screen debut.

“They would have liked for me to use somebody from Bollywood. They would have liked for me to make it in Hindi,” Singh said.

“But I said, ‘It just needs to be this.’ (…) It’s in Punjabi and it’s small.”

– ‘Natural fit’ –

Singh turns the ripped-from-the-headlines drama into something of a folk tale — the film starts and ends with narrative verses from singer Kanwar Grewal.

The format is akin to Shakespeare’s narrator in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Singh molds his story to fit the broad strokes of the classic play — Jassi speaks to Mithu from a balcony, and there is even a sleeping potion.

After their initial meet-cute in Punjab, the lovers are on opposite sides of the world for years, until Jassi returns to India and secretly marries Mithu.

When her family discovers the union, Jassi is beaten and tricked into signing a criminal complaint against her husband.

She manages to return to India, but a tender reunion quickly gives way to a deadly denouement, orchestrated by her own mother and uncle.

In real life, Jassi’s relatives were only extradited to India last year. The case is still pending.

For Singh, the story was personal in that the events unfolded not far from where he was born in Punjab. And he felt he could clearly convey the societal pressures at work, especially in his depiction of Jassi’s mother.

With nine daughters in a blended family, Jassi’s mother faced a choice, Singh says: “One goes rogue, and the other eight won’t get married, they are ruined. What do I do to get them married — write this one off or embrace her?

“And the answer was write her off. (…) I don’t agree with it but I understand it,” he said. “She’s in pain and making the absolute wrong decisions.”

Singh said having the world premiere of “Dear Jassi” in Toronto was a “natural fit,” given the story’s Canadian connection. It will also screen in competition at the London Film Festival in early October.

When asked if he will make more movies in India, Singh is effusive.

“Once I did this, I said, ‘Oh, I love the experience.’ I want to do a whole bunch of big ones there. And I’m probably going to go into it straight away,” he said.

So what type of movie could it be? “A massive… Indian action flick,” he says.