The quasi-narrator who bookends Tarsem Singh’s return to the big screen with the India-set Dear Jassi doesn’t quite know where to start his ripped-from-the-headlines true story-turned-folk-tale. His Juliet in the Canadian-raised Jassi (Pavia Sidhu), born to a good family that sends her back to their homeland to vacation with her cousin? His Romeo in the Punjabi-born but baptized Sikh, illiterate rickshaw driver / amateur athlete Mithu (Yugam Sood)? Or with the fateful meeting of these star-crossed lovers who serendipitously reside one street apart?

While the plot ultimately chooses the latter, it’s not before providing a glimpse of the future. Screaming. Abuse. Police. It’s a foreshadowing of the other shoe dropping almost 90 minutes before it does––a necessity for intrigue since that hour-and-a-half can’t help dragging in its familiar tale of forbidden, secretive love. In a perfect world Mithu would only have to ask for Jassi’s hand in marriage. In 1990s-era Punjabi culture (and perhaps today’s as well), however, the act itself could earn a bullet. If he could get to Canada first, though, they could simply run away.

Multiple reasons prevent that result and the strain it takes on the couple when apart can prove as grating as the lovey-dovey eyes when together proves overly saccharine. Utilizing this repetition to escalate the stakes isn’t without its merits, though. It helps Singh and screenwriter Amit Rai bide their time with details behind the dangerous process of elopement, humorous socio-economic culture clashes, and the first half of an effective tonal bait-and-switch. Because the more we grow complacent to the dark risks being taken, the harder the gut punch from what’s coming hits. And it sure does pack a wallop.

The images might not be as overtly opulent as Singh’s earlier work, but he still maintains some nice flash via long takes and slow pans. The costuming and coloring are great, too, proving another means of making it seem as if everything will be okay. The blood and bruises arrive once the fear of losing love becomes replaced by the terror of losing life. And with so many bribes and favors going around, there’s surely a wealth of political commentary involved as well for those in the know without sacrificing the investment of those who aren’t.

Sidhu and Sood are perfect as the idyllically innocent pair described by the narrator as having Hollywood-caliber looks to make it difficult to think they wouldn’t gravitate towards one another with little more than a first glance. Their chemistry is palpable, built off the tension of scared virgins unsure of moral boundaries and good-natured ribbing born from affection when the disparity between their upbringings comes into clearer focus. Because it’s not as though one is good and one bad. It’s not even that one grew up on the wrong side of the tracks (Jassi literally vacations on his block). It’s religion. Customs. Tradition. It’s about a lack of choice.

Kudos to the filmmakers for not shying away from this reality. By letting the horrors to come unfold in all their uncensored brutality, Dear Jassi forces those who would rather dismiss such situations as not being their problem to experience the violence being done in God’s name firsthand. This tragedy is ultimately about love somehow becoming a reason for disgrace. That a marriage based on money and segregation is somehow more holy than one born from a smile and longing to be together, despite both.

Thus nothing proves more unforgivably evil than a voice on the phone choosing to refuse to defend her own child. Not the anxiety of a gunshot ringing out when it shouldn’t. Not the torture of innocents via the coercion of the state. Not even a man maimed under the cloak of darkness while others are made to helplessly watch. No. It’s a mother saying her daughter is already dead to her. A mother telling her child that, had she known what she knows, she would have killed her as an infant herself. That’s true evil. The dishonor religion repackages as “honor” to maintain its control.

Dear Jassi premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: B

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