Mediterrane 2024 Interview: Tarsem Singh Talks Breaking Out of His Visual Pigeonhole with DEAR JASSI, Michael Haneke, THE FALL

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Mediterrane 2024 Interview: Tarsem Singh Talks Breaking Out of His Visual Pigeonhole with DEAR JASSI, Michael Haneke, THE FALL

(R-L: Tarsem Singh, lead actress Pavia Sidhu and DOP Brendan Galvin, (c) Mediterrane Film Festival)

Director Tarsem Singh has become synonymous with visually arresting and surreal storytelling. In his latest film, Dear Jassi, which he personally introduced at the Mediterrane Film Festival in Malta, Singh takes a dramatic turn, embracing a grounded realism that starkly contrasts with his previous work. Based on a true story of a tragic honor killing, Dear Jassi is Singh's first feature film set in his native India and marks his return to the big screen after nearly a decade. 

Screen Anarchy sat down with the director for an interview, where he opens up about the motivations and challenges behind Dear Jassi, his thoughts on the term "honor killing," and the long-awaited revival of his cult favorite, The Fall, and Michael Haneke.

Screen Anarchy: DEAR JASSI is a departure from your typically lush and surreal visual style, instead embracing a more grounded realism. What motivated you to approach this true story with such restraint, and how did it challenge you as a filmmaker?

Tarsem Singh: It wasn't particularly a challenge because most people, especially in the cinema industry, only know me for the visually extravagant work I do. But I've been doing advertising for 35 years, and many of those projects are in completely different styles.

In the film industry, it's hard to break out from the pigeonhole you get placed into. After making one visual film, then another, it becomes easier to get another visual film financed. Eventually, you just think, "Yeah, this is what gets financed," and you keep making those.

I heard about this story 23 years ago and thought I should make the film immediately. I told my brother to wait 20 years until it becomes retro. When someone approached me to make a movie in India, I mentioned this personal film I wanted to make, not expecting much. Surprisingly, they immediately said yes to whatever I wanted to do. So, I went ahead and realized the style it needed.

I told the writer it should feel like a script by Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noé, directed by one of the Iranians, like Shirin Neshat, not so much Farhadi. I wanted a tableau-like, minimalist camera approach to a story that's quite hardcore. Iranians often take a divorce and make it feel like the end of the universe because it is for those people. Haneke and Noé tackle really hardcore subjects similarly.

So, it became a mixture of those styles. I told the cameraman, "We're going to get the right people, and when we film it, it's going to be very flat." There's still a visual film, but it's not fantastical because people are used to seeing fantastical stuff from me.

I thought those visual films are your nature because they're sort of a trademark of yours.

Well, it has become that because those are the only films that people see. The ones I've done recently, when I do commercials, they're all over the place. Some are very realism-based, some are very distinct. About 80% of my work is fantastical, so that's what I kept making back to back.

But with Dear Jassi, I wanted to explore a completely different style. The style I usually use for films wasn't going to suit the subject matter here. Initially, I wondered if it could be something like the movie Brazil, where it becomes completely fantastical because the protagonist has a breakdown. But I decided against it.

By the way, I love the Haneke reference because that was the first director who came to mind towards the end of the film. Was a European auteur cinema influence on you?

Well, I've always loved European auteurs. When I started, I was much more influenced by Tarkovsky and even Pasolini and Paradjanov. You can still see the references to Tarkovsky and Paradjanov in my earlier work. But as I’ve evolved, I've fallen more for directors like Haneke and the Iranian cinema. I grew up in Iran as a child, and I felt it was time to revisit those influences and this film's subject matter allowed that.

The film deals with the sensitive and tragic subject of “an honor killing,” which commonly considered to be related to religious rather than social motifs.

Not at all. It's not a religious problem; it's more of a cultural issue. This is prevalent not just in India and Pakistan but can happen in various places. It's a horrible name, and I've really encouraged the press to come up with a different term. The Western name for it is really problematic. Calling it "honor killing" is like trying to make murder and rape sound presentable.

The West is great at softening harsh realities with euphemisms, like calling a bomb falling near a school "collateral damage" when children die. We should come up with a better word than "honor killing." The term implies there's something honorable about it, which is far from the truth.

I really encourage the press to find a different term. There's nothing honorable about these acts, and using the term "honor killing" gives perpetrators a leg to stand on. We need a term that involves murder or something.

These acts can be driven by economic reasons, religious differences, or social status issues. For instance, if one person has a green card and another doesn't, it creates a social divide that some families aren't willing to accept, and it leads to killing a child or a sibling. In the East, they don't call it "honor killing." They only use it now because the West does.

How did you balance the need for respectful storytelling with the intense emotions and brutality inherent in the story?

Dear Jassi is not particularly graphic, except for one small scene, which was a accidental and I could not rectify it.  I wanted most of the disturbing content to be off-screen. Personally, I think it's far more disturbing that way. This approach is very much inspired by Iranian cinema, where if something traumatic is happening in one room, the camera stays in another room. Directors like Noé or Haneke, on the other hand, aren't afraid to confront you with it directly. So, the style is a kind of mixture of the two.

Since it is a true crime story, did you take into consideration true crime tropes?

I find them incredibly lazy and two-dimensional, great for falling asleep, at least for me. I aimed for something different.

I didn't want the film to have that gritty, handheld feel. I wanted a style that was quite contrapuntal to typical true crime aesthetics. True crime often goes for a gritty, raw look, but I chose a more composed and flat style, similar to Haneke's approach. It's more disturbing because there's nowhere to hide if the actors can't deliver. With medium shots everywhere, if something isn't working, it's immediately apparent.

You've mentioned in other interviews that you shot DEAR JASSI 90% chronologically. What was the reasoning behind this approach?

Yes, I decided to shoot the film mostly in chronological order because the lead actor had never acted before, and as far as I knew, the actress hadn't either. Later, I found out she had done a small series that hadn't been released yet. I chose actors who were the right fit in terms of background and dialect.

I knew I couldn't rely on traditional line readings with them; it was more about setting up situations and letting them react naturally. Shooting chronologically allowed them to grow into their roles organically. They lived the story in sequence, which made their performances more authentic.

We managed to shoot most of the film this way, though there were some economic constraints. For instance, I couldn't get the singer early enough, so we had to adjust a bit there. But otherwise, whenever possible, we stuck to shooting in order.

This method is often preferred by directors when the budget allows it because it helps maintain continuity and performance quality. In this case, with many non-professional actors, it was crucial. Working with them every day, we built on their performances, and it worked like a charm. The two lead actors were so enamored with each other, everything unfolded just as I hoped.

So how long did it take to shoot the film? How many shooting days were there?

It didn't take that many days. We shot in India for about five weeks, not counting weekends. So that's roughly 30 days. Then we had an additional five days of shooting in Vancouver.

Throughout the shoot, I was editing the film every day. When we finished shooting, the film was edited and ready in just 48 hours. I didn't make any major changes or do much additional coverage. We just shot it, put it together, and aside from cutting out two scenes, it's exactly how it was when we finished.

So, in total, it was about 30 days in India and five days in Vancouver.

The film opens and closes with a musical narration by Kanwar Grewal, framing the story as a folk tale. It reminds of your storytelling trademark. Why did you decide to incorporate that narration?

That's a great question. Initially, I didn't want to include those elements. I envisioned the film to be very flat, but I had this structure in mind because I heard about the story 23 years ago, and it has evolved since then. The situation has only gotten worse for the guy involved, which is hard to imagine.

I wanted to keep the narrative straightforward. When I discussed it with the writer, he did full research and added scenes from their childhood, their lives before they met, and what happened after. But I felt that wasn't necessary. You don't need to know how Romeo and Juliet grew up, just introduce them.

The ending I was obsessed with was the telephone call. That call, where a mother spoke to the people holding her daughter hostage, was what struck me the most when I first heard about the incident. I reverse-engineered the whole film around that moment. I didn't want to extend beyond that point because it was already so powerful.

I didn't want it to turn into one of those films where, at the end, you see photographs of the real people and it feels like a documentary. I couldn't think of how to end it until I remembered this bard, a mystic I had seen on YouTube about eight years ago. He was at a fair, singing, and went into a trance. I thought, "I'm going to get this guy."

His presence added a Shakespearean touch to the film. He provides the intro and the closure, encouraging the audience to do their own research if they want to know more about what happened. This approach allowed me to cut out 20 minutes of the film, making it tighter. His summary bookends the story, and I felt it worked perfectly.

The inclusion of the narrator and the framing seems to wrap the story in a fable-like quality, which can create a bit of dissociation from the fact that it's a true story.

A lot of friends initially didn't realize it was a true story. They would say, "Oh, it's a true story?" even after it was mentioned. To make it very clear, I decided to emphasize it repeatedly.

At the start of the film, over a black screen, I explicitly state that it's based on a true story. Then, the bard reiterates it. And finally, at the end, he encourages the audience to do their own research. Repeating it three times was crucial because when people sit down at the beginning of a film, they might not catch that detail.

You mentioned the story existed in your head for several years, but it was only possible to make it when the right circumstances aligned and when an Indian company boarded the project. Can you elaborate on that process?

For me, it's like The Fall. I had that story in my mind for 28 years, and when it was time to make it, I had to do it immediately because within three months, the girl would have been a different person. With Dear Jassi, I had the story for 23 years. When the right people came on board, everything fell into place quickly.

The writer completed the script in about one sitting. I cast the actors, and once that was done, we shot the film and had it cut within 48 hours. It waited for 23 years, and then, bang, it was finished. I didn't dwell on it for 28 years. It was more like a story I knew I would revisit when the time was right.

People often think that when you work on a project for so long, you're constantly developing it. But apart from The Fall, these stories just sit in the back of my mind, and when the timing is correct, they come out. I wasn't actively looking for people to make Dear Jassi for 23 years. It was the first company I talked to in India who said yes, and we made it.

I thought you pitched it in the US initially.

No, not really. At one point, I talked to another filmmaker about how we could make this thing. She was going to connect me with some producers, but it fell through, and I moved on to other projects. But when someone in India asked what I wanted to do, I mentioned Dear Jassi, and they said, "Okay, let's do it."

Indian films appear to be flourishing, especially on the film festival circuit.

India is experiencing a sort of renaissance in cinema, which is fantastic. Last year, we just barely got Dear Jassi into the Toronto Film Festival in time. It's great to see so many new voices emerging. Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can be a director.

The rules of engagement in Indian and Chinese commercial cinema are completely different from those in the West. That's what's helped their cinema thrive. Indian cinema, especially the commercial kind, embraces its unique blend of elements. It can seamlessly incorporate operatic and filmic elements, where singing in a serious situation is perfectly fine.

Similarly, Chinese cinema can feature fantastical flying dance sequences, and it's accepted as part of the narrative. These unique rules of engagement have allowed their cinemas to survive and flourish.

Now, with the rise of Indian art house cinema, we're seeing a different voice emerging. This kind of cinema has always existed, from directors like Satyajit Ray to Shyam Benegal, but it's gaining more recognition now. Back then, neorealism was the focus, and Satyajit Ray was the poster child for it. Today, we can hear a broader range of modern voices, which is great for Indian cinema.

Does this mean that DEAR JASSI is a milestone in your career, marking a shift towards different types of projects?

Not at all. It's just that when the next project comes along, like when I did The Fall—a personal film—I just went and made it. Dear Jassi's time had come, it got financed, and I made it. Sometimes people say, "Oh, you haven't done anything for seven years," but that's not true. I'm always working, doing commercials and TV series—about ten of them.

I work all the time, but when a project comes along that I really want to do and I get the right control, I just go and make it. People often put you in a box and expect you to stay within that style. This was a good chance to show that I can do something different.

And speaking of THE FALL, I heard the rights are reverting back to you.

They've always been mine. That film was one of those indulgent projects where I spent all my money, sold everything, and just said, "I'm going to make this movie." Because nobody wanted to buy it, I spent another two years working and released it myself. So, I've always had the rights. But after so many years, people can't see it. It's not available anywhere.

Now, I'm finally trying to work it out. It'll probably be on MUBI. Currently, we are working with Locarno to reintroduce it. I keep getting letters from people saying they're having to pay $300 to buy the Blu-ray, so we just made a 4K version. It just finished, and we did add two scenes, making it only a minute and 20 seconds longer.

I thought you were going to make a director's cut.

Well, the original was pretty much the director's cut, but this new version is a minute and 20 seconds longer. There was one line that I wish I had not changed. In retrospect, when people go to an arthouse film, they get it immediately. But when people saw it back then, they didn't realize it was from a child's perspective.

Initially, it was supposed to start with "Once upon a time in Los Angeles," signaling a grown-up's fairy tale, perhaps remembered by an older person. When I tried using the voice of an older person in the beginning, it felt clichéd, like Titanic. It wasn't that type of film, so I couldn't use that voice. So I left it out, and people found the story naïve.

In retrospect, I realized I should have kept that title. Tarantino was right with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—it signifies an alternative reality. It sets the tone correctly. So, I put that back in because it was what the film needed.

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Brendan GalvinMediterrane Film Festival 2024Pavia SidhuTarsem Singh

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