Cinema has been a little duller for the eight-year absence of Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, the Indian-born auteur whose flamboyant formal style carried over from the music video realm into a distinctively sensuous strain of mainstream fantasy filmmaking — halted by the relative disappointment of 2015’s lackluster Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Self/less.” That makes Singh Dhandwar’s return with “Dear Jassi” something of an event, even before considering the film’s surprising expansion of his repertoire: Leaving behind Hollywood, genre cinema and his trademark maximalist mise-en-scène for his first film made in his homeland, the director keeps things simple but stately in this fact-based tale of young, star-crossed love in India’s Punjab region.
The result is sometimes slack but incrementally powerful, marked by a palpable sense of renewed purpose on the part of its helmer. Singh Dhandwar claims the true story of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu, a young Indian-Canadian woman murdered by her own family in an honor killing in 2000, has been at the back of his mind for more or less the duration of his feature film career — and there is a bracing air of catharsis to “Dear Jassi,” an emphasis on elemental emotions and visceral violence that is new to his work.
Yet in this unfamiliarly restrained register, the filmmaker doesn’t feel entirely at home with pure human storytelling. The two characters at the center of Amit Rai’s screenplay are superficially defined beyond their all-consuming devotion, and that lack of nuance and texture makes for some flat stretches across a leisurely 134-minute runtime — though a shattering finale, staged with brilliant formalist rigor, leaves the most lasting impression. That echoing impact, combined with auteur name value and a Platform Prize win at Toronto last month, should secure the film global arthouse exposure.
“Dear Jassi” opens (and closes) with its most fancifully Tarsem-esque flourish, and an effective one at that: a bookending musical narration by celebrated Punjab singer and poet Kanwar Grewal, seated on a desolate patch of farmland that will gain in resonance by the film’s end, that frames the story we’re about to see as a manner of folk tale, at once ancient and unhappily contemporary. “Romeo and Juliet” is directly invoked, and we soon see why as we’re introduced to 19-year-old Jaswinder (Pavia Sidhu), nicknamed Jassi, the ingenuous daughter of a wealthy Indian-Canadian family from British Columbia, and Mithu (Yugam Sood), a poor, illiterate rickshaw driver in her ancestral Punjab hometown of Jagraon.
Jassi meets Mithu while visiting relatives in Jagraon, and the attraction between them is immediate. Singh Dhandwar and his young stars are attentive to the naive, moony gazes and gasps of puppy love, though Rai’s dialogue has a tendency to over-explain such body language: “I want to stay here with you forever,” she moans as her return flight to Canada beckons, as if that wasn’t already obvious. Back home, she maintains a long-distance connection with her beau, writing him long, besotted letters that Mithu finds a local scholar to read aloud. But the miles aren’t even the biggest obstacle to their romance, as Jassi realizes her snobbish, tradition-bound family will never consent to her relationship with a working-class nobody. Returning to India, she courageously takes matters into her own hands.
You can see where this going, as the story follows (with no fictional intervention needed) its apparent Shakespearean template down to a secret wedding and a catastrophic failure to communicate, only to eventually take its own horribly tragic turn. Singh Dhandwar and Rai counteract the doe-eyed idealism of the central romance — as Jassi and Muthi vow to stay together against all social and familial obstacles — with a detailed focus on practical complications, in particular the treacherous paperwork of lawyers and immigration officers. That split between romanticism and real-world grit is most strikingly felt in a candid shot of a divey hotel bed the night after the lovers’ marriage and consummation, its white sheets bearing a blush of blood.
Amid such contrasts and complexities, it’s hard not to wish we had a fuller sense of Jassi and Muthi as personalities, rather than as mere beautiful victims of their defiant feelings. An appealing presence with mostly TV credits under her belt, Sidhu gives Jassi some sense of stubbornly dreamy fight, though newcomer Sood finds less expressive leeway in the script. Singh Dhandwar and his regular DP Brendan Galvin regard the leads with almost awed tenderness: Any frame featuring the two seems to glow a little brighter than any other. At their most crazy in love, the film whirls dynamically with them — though the greatest cinematic coup in “Dear Jassi,” counter to all its director’s previous instincts, lies in the poised severity of a still camera, in one scene of unseen, unspeakable punishment. It’s certainly new for a Tarsem Singh Dhandwar film to startle us with imagery withheld, rather than offered in abundance; either way, it’s good to have him back.