By Renu Mehta
‘Dear Jassi’ is a true Romeo and Juliet story of a young couple who fall in love with each other in a small village setting in Punjab and then are separated by family with horrible consequences. The story begins with Sikh singer Kanwar Grewal who tells the audience that they are about to see a love story, as he croons against the backdrop of lush green fields in Punjab.
Directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, his first feature film, is the story of Jassi (Pavia Sidhu) from British Columbia who is on a visit to her extended family in Jagrao, Punjab, and falls for Mithu (Yugam Sood) a kabaddi player who also drives a rickshaw.
Jassi quickly falls for him but has to return to Canada with her mother. This love affair develops with handwritten letters and phone calls across international borders. Soon, the couple realize there is no easy way to be together, so they secretly get married while Jassi files papers for Mithu to come to Canada. Meanwhile, Jassi’s family finds out and the continuing injustice and consequences are brutal. It is a true case of forbidden love where the family orders the killing of their own daughter. At some point in the film, the mother tells her daughter that had she known the daughter would do this, she would have killed her when she was just an infant.
According to the filmmaker, this is more of a cultural thing, not religious. “The problem is actually with the first generation, in every culture. When you leave a place, you tend to romanticize and forget why you wanted to get out of that place, and you grab at straws and become much more fundamental. Then, you go abroad and sing songs as if how great the home was. That has been the culture for the past 3,000 years. Immigrants settling in different places, become more conservative than the people back home. Your cousins are from Canada, and you think they will be more progressive, but they are ten times more ‘dehati.’ So, they have stagnated right there. By the time, the second and third generation comes, it gets resolved.”
Dhandwar, who has made the film in Punjabi, wanted to make this film for over 2 decades.
“This is a story that came over 23 years ago. I told my brother that this is a tale we either make right now or later. This is timeless. This has been going on for hundreds of years and unfortunately, this will happen for little longer unless we do something about it,” he said at the TIFF screening.
“I heard about the telephone conversation that the mother had with the girl,” he says. “When I heard the line that the mother says, ‘Do whatever you want, and you mean nothing to us.’ And I said how to make a film in which this looks okay or that you believe this. So, I reverse-engineered the film.”
“But if you google the story, it actually gets worse. The guy gets 5 years in prison because someone accused him of rape, ostensibly paid for by the parents of the girl. It took 22 years and the day we started the film a year ago around this time, the parents got deported from Canada, but they are appealing the case,” he added further.
When Dhandwar told his sister, he was going to make this film, she said please do not. “She was scared, and it did not stop with that. But I did not really care about the reaction. Being a Punjabi, a Sikh, and an Indian, I have never had the race card played against me. Everywhere I go, as it is, I am quite politically incorrect. And people say it might be okay in their culture, so I get by with a lot more.”
‘Dear Jassi’ had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.