BY RENU MEHTA, TORONTO:
Dear Jassi is a true Romeo 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 while 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 on a visit to her extended family in Jagrao in Punjab 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. The 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’s a true case of forbidden love where the family orders the killing of their own daughter. At some point of the film, the mother tells her daughter that had she known the daughter would do this, she would have killed her when she was 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 at how great the home was. That’s been cultural for the past 3000 years.”
“Immigrants settling in different places, they 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’ve stagnated right there. By the time, the second and third generation comes, it gets resolved.”
Dhandwar, who has made the film in Punjabi, has wanted to make this film for over two 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 100s of years and unfortunately this will happen for little bit 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. “There was a line in there and when I heard that line and the mother says ‘do whatever you want and you mean nothing to us’. And I said how you make a film in which that looks okay or that you buy that. So I reverse engineered the film.”
“But if you google the story, it actually gets worse. The guy gets five 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.”
When Dhandwar told his sister, he was going to make this film, she said please don’t.
“She was scared and it didn’t stop with that. But I didn’t really care about the reaction. Being a Punjabi, a Sikh and Indian, I have never had the race card played against me. Everywhere I go, as it is, I’m quite politically incorrect. And people say 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.