EXCLUSIVE: Director Tarsem Singh thought of his own sainted mother as he tried to understand why a Canadian woman of Indian heritage would plot to have her daughter abducted then murdered.
It was to be a significant moment as Singh prepared to shoot Dear Jassi, his first feature shot in India, the land of his birth.
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The riveting film played at TIFF, shocking audiences who thought they were going to watch a gentle love story. ”It is a love story,” Singh noted, but with a grisly murder at its center.
Dear Jassi is inspired by the real-life honor killing of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu in June 2000.
Aided by a local policeman, thugs ambushed Jaswinder and her husband, dragged the young bride to a desolate farm in a Punjabi village and slit her throat on the direct orders of the girl’s mother, who was at the other end of a phone thousands of miles away in Vancouver, according to court testimony and police reports.
“You don’t hear about it,” Singh said of the act of filicide, “but it’s more often than you think.”
The only way he could comprehend “what a villainous character this person was is to think of a pure person that I know. And I thought of my mother, and literally all I could think of was that if you put a woman like that into the situation. … I could see it happening,” he told me.
Your own mother? You think she’d order a hit on her own child?, I spluttered.
“I could think of tons of women that this would happen with,” he responded calmly.
Jaswinder came from a large family in “Mini Punjab,” as the region of Vancouver is described in Dear Jassi.
The household consisted of several other girls of marriageable age.
Shame rained upon the family compound when Jaswinder met a handsome but poor rickshaw driver while holidaying in India and married him.
Singh explained that “the big problem comes when you have 10 girls of marriageable age living together in a house,” Singh said. “It’s all arranged-marriage stuff, so that if anything goes wrong, the whole household will fall apart. If one goes astray, then all 10 might not get married.”
He sighed and posed a chilling question: “Do I get rid of this one child so the other nine can survive?”
None of it is condonable, Singh stressed, ”but once I’d thought it through, I had the mother’s reasoning. I understood why she acted the way she did. Her daughter now means ‘nothing to us. Do whatever you want.’ That’s what the mother told the thugs over the telephone. And I wouldn’t say it’s condonable, but then I could say the old cliché about what it takes for good people to do bad things.”
Singh suggested that for good people to do such bad things, there’s usually cultural of religion underpinning. “She means well and she’s doing something horrific. That I saw a lot from my mother, that meaning well in the name of God or in the name of the cultural thing you’re tied up in. You can do some horrendous shit.”
Does any of that justify what this mother did?
“Not at all, not even one percent,” he said. “But you know what? I come from that culture. … It’s not at all justifiable under any stretch of the imagination, but when you can identify with them, it’s a lot more disturbing.”
And as played by Sunita Dhir, wearing oversized spectacles, Jasssi’s mother codes across as a Bengal tigress in sheep’s clothing.
Singh was born in Punjabi but left India when he was 24 to major in film studies at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Soon after he began directing music videos including R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” His first movie was 2000’s The Cell starring Jennifer Lopez. He self-financed The Fall (2006) and followed that with Immortals in 2011, then Mirror Mirror the next year.
Later he shot the short film 911 for Lady Gaga, which has been viewed 81 million times on YouTube.
Singh’s family are Sikhs, but they’re not Sardars — “the people who have long hair.”
He argued that Jassi’s murder “is more of a cultural than a religious thing, because if you go across the border into Pakistan, you go anywhere and you see those people. They’re Muslim, and they’ll have exactly the same issue. It’s just that when they go to a new land, even if you’re running away from your land and you hate your place, when you go away, you start singing on how brilliant it is.”
For instance, Singh said he spoke to people in Boston about Ireland, ”and I keep thinking Ireland is like Punjabi. It’s a great place to be from, but when you’re there, you want to get the f*ck out of there and then go and talk about how great it is back home.”
However, he reasoned that migrants moving to “an alien land” grab “at any cultural straws that you hated back home, so that you become a lot more pedantic, religious, culturally oriented than you were back home. When you see these people who are in Canada or anywhere in England, you see that they’re 20 times more strict than the Indians back in India because that place has moved on.”
Singh told me that he heard about the sorrowful tale of Jaswinder when it happened 23 years ago.
Two decades later, he was asked if there was anything that he wanted to film in India. ”And I said, ‘There is one story,’ but they didn’t want to go for it because they wanted to make some commercial films. But just like I couldn’t do any commercial film until I got The Fall off my shoulder, I thought I had to get [Dear Jassi] off my shoulder before I did any other films in India.”
Singh and his scriptwriter Amit Rai framed their tale of woe in Romeo and Juliet fashion, as told by Sufi storytellers.”They equate lovers or love of those particular people with God.”
And the soothsayers boast at the start of the film that the hero and heroine of Dear Jassi are more beautiful than any Hollywood star.
“These two people were stunning looking,” Singh noted.
“This girl had been brought up in this close-knit family in Canada, goes to India to a cousin’s wedding, sees this stud shirtless and just falls in love. So if he was ugly or if he didn’t have a good body or whatever, it wouldn’t have happened.
“You see a stud playing sport — you’re like, ‘F*ck, I’m in love,’” he said as he walked around the room carting out the part.
Casting the roles of Jassi and Mithu, her beloved, was “the worst thing,” said Singh.
“So where are the 20-year-old girls? Not a single one. So I just gave up, and I just started calling cousins in Canada and saying, ‘Do you know anybody? I have 24 hours to cast this person. Do you know anybody?’”
He considered one girl, but her family had sympathy for Jassi’s murderous mother. “And that would be asking for trouble,” Singh told me.
Finally, a call came in about an unknown who fit the brief. He saw her on Instagram and made up his mind there and then to hire Pavia Sidhu.
Turned out that she had sent in a tape earlier, “but the casting guys didn’t think I’d like her. She was there all the time, but they didn’t show me the self-tape,” he complained.
Yugam Sood had never acted before in his life, but Singh liked the look of him. ”He was perfect. He’s actually a kabbadi player, so he knew the sport. Another plus was that he didn’t speak English. He was perfect. Big strapping lad. I spent time with them both, going over the lines. I had my innocents, I had my Romeo and Juliet,” he told me.
Making his first film in India “was a phenomenal experience,” he said.
Initially, he’d been “scared”’” to shoot there, but his producers in India — D. Shah, Rajesh Bahl and Ashwin Varde at Wakaoo Films LLP; Bhushan Kumar and Krishna Kumar of T-series; and Sanjay Grover of Creative Strokes Group — pulled out all the stops for him. ”It was the most pleasantly phenomenal experience I could have had. I was so excited,” he said as he detailed how he’d film all day and edit the picture himself at night.
“And the day we finished shooting, within 48 hours I locked the picture.”
Again he showered praise on his producers. ”They really provided the great network, and they understand now how I work. So if I go back and do other things, I will be with them and they will know what I need.”
Linda Lichter at Lichter Grossman Nichols Adler Feldman & Clark Inc. in handling worldwide sales for Dear Jassi.
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