Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s “Dear Jassi” starts with a declaration: This is a love story. Sikh singer Kanwar Grewal proclaims this directly to the audience while sitting in the lush fields of Punjab, visibly moved already by the the events about to be depicted. Over the next 132 minutes, Dhandwar weaves the stirring, tragic, and true journey of Jassi (Pavia Sidhu) and Mithu (Yugam Sood).
Jaswinder “Jassi” Kaur and Sukhwinder Singh “Mithu” Sidhu met in Punjab in the 1990s (1996 in the film, 1994 in real life), where they quickly fell in love. “Dear Jassi” chronicles their courtship from that first serendipitous meeting and through years of love letters, phone calls, and a secret marriage. Dhandwar and his cinematographic collaborator Brendan Galvin instantly immerse viewers in the story, told through long takes and slow, steady panning that captures the stillness of rural India — and how love and hate can shake that peace to its very roots.
Sidhu and Sood stun from the start as the young lovers. She trembles and tears up even in the joyous early stages, giving the impression that Jassi feels so much love she can hardly bear it, and even trying to do so brings tears to her eyes. Sood’s Mithu is quiet and gentle compared to his determined Canada-raised wife, externalizing the comfort Jassi feels in his company (it also happens to be his feature debut). The film lags in the middle, but the final, ruthless act will have you longing for the simplicity of circular conversations and miscommunication in favor of what comes next.
Dhandwar insisted on making the film in Punjabi (save for a few scenes among Jassi and her friends in Canada), a decision that proves its own merit from the get-go. Though he’s had offers and encouragement to venture into Bollywood and Hindi cinema for years, his first Indian feature unfolds in his mother tongue, an essential piece of the mesmeric viewing experience that should rightfully not be dubbed. There is a different ache to Grewal’s speaking and singing in Punjabi, a lilt to Mithu’s sweet nothings, a resilience in Jassi’s cries of both sorrow and joy.
It feels strange to treat the reality of Jassi Sidhu’s life as a spoiler, a reality that can be easily Googled (which the film encourages) to catch up on the horrors she and Mithu endured and the failure of multiple governments to bring those responsible to justice. Ahead of the film’s September 10 TIFF embargo, there were few recent search results for Sidhu’s fate, let alone coverage from global outlets. But Dhandwar did not direct and produce the film — written by Amit Rai and adapted from “Justice For Jassi” by Jupinderjit Singh, Harbinder Singh Sewak and Fabian Dawson — to divert attention from Sidhu’s story.
It moved him so strongly that he wanted to adapt it for the screen over 20 years ago. It has been the subject of true crime podcasts and critical journalism, and the specifics should chill anyone, especially as they unfold on screen. “Dear Jassi” succeeds with shocking efficacy at luring viewers into a pocket of bliss and then shattering it so viscerally that it will — and should — haunt the audience long after Grewal’s melodies fade into the background. Like the title, the film is a missive to Jassi, and a promise that she won’t be forgotten.
“Dear Jassi” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.