Tarsem Singh: ‘I went bankrupt making The Fall, and I’d go bankrupt another ten times to do it’

Movie

The visionary Indian director behind modern cult favourite The Fall reflects on the film finding its audience after 17 years, and the production of Dear Jassi – his first feature film in almost a decade.

There are few cinematic imaginations as delightfully surreal, as full of wonder, and as critically divisive as the one belonging to filmmaker Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. Often going only by the name Tarsem, those familiar with his work may easily betray when they came of age: he cut his teeth making commercials (Nike, among them) and music videos (including R.E.M.’s Losing my Religion) in the 1990s alongside a crop of talent including David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, and Spike Jonze. When I meet Tarsem at his London flat, he greets me warmly: before long we are situated on plush cushions on his floor, barefoot, drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and chatting movies.

“I remember in school, we all used to sit on the floor and they’d put our dining table to the side and put a sheet up to project the movie. And if anybody was in front of you, you’d think, I’ll never understand the movie. You’d think: what if there’s a snake in the movie, I won’t see. You’d forget that the snake would be a close-up, he’s gonna be 50 feet long. But we’d always fight for the good seat when the movie started,” Tarsem tells me, talking about growing up watching all manner of international films – often without understandable subtitles – at his school in India. “The truth of the matter is that you aren’t even aware that that’s the language of cinema. You’re just in it, or you’re not,” he says. It’s quite an object lesson for a filmmaker so well-known for being a stylist first and foremost: a protean, lightning-strike reaction to motion picture imagery that transcends cold intellectualism.

Tarsem burst onto the scene with his first feature in 2000: maximalist sci-fi thriller The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez. But his real cult favourite these days is The Fall (2006), a wild fantasy adventure about a silent movie stuntman who befriends a child in hospital. He’s made some Hollywood filler in between, but now he’s returned to our cinema screens at the London Film Festival just gone by to show his epic, realist drama Dear Jassi. It could not be more different from the lush, extravagant dreaminess of his past projects. It’s also the first film he’s made set in his native India.

“Dear Jassi is the first film to even be recommended by the Tomatometer, or whatever it’s called. With The Fall it’s taken 15 or 20 years for people to appreciate it. I guess a lot of the old critics died, maybe,” he says with a cheeky grin.

The Fall has been woefully critically ignored, to movie culture’s detriment. Unreleased in the UK and US until 2008 and almost entirely self-funded, it is a film of heartbreaking phantasms and childlike joys, looking at the human need for storytelling and escapism in the face of an often unbearably harsh and unromantic reality.

In it, a dashing but severely injured silent movie stuntman (Lee Pace, bed-ridden for most of the film) is convalescing on a ward with a young Romanian immigrant girl (unknown child actress Catinca Untaru, who spoke only broken English at the time) and begins to tell her fabulous stories to pass the time – ones which often sadly borrow from his own travails being chewed up by the Hollywood dream factory, repackaged as vainglorious adventures for the little girl’s benefit. With a dash of Arabian Nights in its framework and more than a bit of Cecil B. DeMille in its spirit – both in the enormity of its scope and artistic endeavour – The Fall is truly one of a kind.

“It’s my baby,” is the first thing the director says when I mention The Fall. “I went bankrupt making it and I’d go bankrupt another ten times to do it. I mean, not exactly bankrupt, but I lost all my money. But if I had another monkey on my back like that, I would do it again without blinking,”

Including all its fantasy story sequences, the film took four years to make and was filmed across over 28 countries, on location in some of the most stunning natural and archaeological sites from world history. There are few computer-generated effects, as Tarsem was determined for there to be a timelessness to the look of the movie.

“I set it in the 1920s because I wanted it to be in a time before there were really genres. And I put a language barrier between them [the two characters] because I grew up going to a boarding school in the Himalayas, and going into Iran three months of the year, and watching films where I didn’t know the language and it wasn’t subtitled,” he explains.

The film’s aesthetic homages to everything from Alejandro Jodorowsky to Ken Russell, its tilting-at-windmills romanticism set against the wild backdrop of early motion picture-making, and its fairytale approach to storytelling all might send the average filmgoer of 2008 – or, maybe, 2023 – running for the exit. It’s heady, strange, statement-making stuff, and Tarsem knows it.

“It is polarising, because I think as a filmmaker you are offering the audience a pill, and it’s if they decide to take it: in this particular scenario, do you buy this situation? I remember when I got all this criticism for The Cell, they were saying, this is unrealistic. And I was like…you’re coming to see a film where J. Lo is a shrink,” he says.

“With The Fall, I sort of wish I’d done a title more like Quentin Tarantino did with Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Because people just saw it as eye candy,” he says. “With me, it’s ok that it’s polarising. I’m okay with a film being the best thing since sliced bread and I’m okay with it being a turd. I’m not okay with comme ci, comme ça. This will keep you young and it will keep you hired.”

Spoken like a man with a real sense of himself and his projects, Tarsem’s love for the craft and his throw-it-all-at-the-wall artist’s mentality are abundantly clear. “I was going around to meetings without a script, saying that when I found the right child for the part that Catinka plays, the script would come from her,” Tarsem says. “So nobody even came close to thinking that they could make it. At a particular time – Fincher always said – every guy who had a lot of money from commercials talked about a film that they wanted to make. But he said, you’re the guy who had the balls to make it,” (Fincher continues to wax lyrical about the film, calling it “what would’ve happened if Andrei Tarkovsky had made ‘The Wizard of Oz’.)

“But the reason – later on, after 15 years, I realise – the reason was that all those people had a life. I didn’t, at that particular time. The person I was planning to spend the rest of my life in Italy had just dumped me. And I turned around and I went: well, what is this for? I’ve got the money. So let’s just embrace it and go. Now I have a son. If you look at that, you have to go: I need to leave him something. But at the time it turned out that I had nothing to lose. So I just went: let’s make this film.”

These days, The Fall has something of a cult reputation among the ones who know, though it remains elusive on home video and streaming. That’s something Tarsem Tarsem wants to rectify, and soon. “The rights have reverted back to me and I have a 4K restoration,” he says. “I feel like it needs to be out there. People are watching really bad YouTube versions and everybody’s asking about it. I always wish they were around when the movie came out because no one wanted anything to do with it. It just tanked. But in the next two or three months, I’d really like to find a home for it.”

Given this background, it’s particularly fascinating that Tarsem – always a Hollywood director – has now set his sights on making a film in the Punjab region he hails from. Dear Jassi is also his first feature in almost a decade, and it departs dramatically from all the visual extravagance we might associate the filmmaker with. This is more or less grounded in realism, based on a true story of a horrific honour killing that happened twenty-three years ago. He first became interested in the project after reading the story in the news – particularly the phone call between kidnappers and the family who arranged their crimes, and what transpired between them.

“I was never ready to make [Dear Jassi] but I always remembered reading about that phone call. Then The Fall came along and I went on this kind of merry journey. And when the Indians asked me, are you interested in [making] anything in India, I said, you’ll never want to make this particular project. But they said yes.”

The stakes of the story hinge almost entirely on the two leads, Jassi and Mithu, and their Romeo and Juliet-style juvenile love for one another in spite of great gaps in language, distance, wealth, and family expectations stacked against them. The film operates as a deeply effective melodrama for most of its run-time, featuring two unknown actors (the sweetly expressive Pavia Sidhu as Jassi, the educated and headstrong young woman who visits her Indian family from Canada, and Yugam Sood as Mithu, a poor local boy who meets her quite by chance on a summer visit to India).

The actors actually found romance on-set, too, Tarsem shares. Yugam Sood is a real Kabaddi player from the area who “spent six months learning English,” while the Canadian-born Sidhu’s “Punjabi was broken’, which they worked into the cultural differences of the plot. It’s only in the final act, when Jassi’s extended, well-off Canadian emigre family decide to go to desperate measures to retrieve their lovesick daughter – insisting that Mithu is terrible to her and even having his impoverished family threatened – that things careen into a sickening tragedy. “We shot 90% of it chronologically, so it worked like magic but became very hard for them to go through [certain] areas,” he explains. The film is still seeking UK distribution at present, but Tarsem is looking ahead, too.

“I was always a guy who only looked at one project at a time and never considered the next thing,” he tells me, by way of explaining the long gestation periods between his feature film work. “But a director friend of mine tells me I should always have more mushrooms on the barbie. So now I’m trying that, and there are a few projects in India, commercial films, heart-on-sleeve action, that I’m interested in,”

Given the enormous international and mainstream success of Indian blockbuster RRR last year – another film with a sense of free-wheeling ambition and remarkable visual flair – the concept of a Tarsem action film made for wide audiences is quite exciting. “I don’t really get the “this is a film for them, this is one for me” thing,” he says. “I don’t do that. I love the commercial shit. I just enjoy making films. I think if you can’t see me in the film that I make, in the DNA, then you’re paying too much for me. So I just think if I go out there, I want to put everything into it.”

He gives me a hug as I head for the door, and I get the sense that there’s little this filmmaker does that he doesn’t, indeed, put everything into – his near-childlike joy in visual storytelling, his personality, and sometimes all his money. Regardless of what you make of his work, it’s hard to find a better definition of an artist than that.

Dear Jassi screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2023 and will be released in the UK in 2024.

Published 7 Nov 2023

Tags: Dear Jassi Tarsem Singh The Fall

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