Michael Winterbottom takes his third crack at famed British novelist Thomas Hardy with Trishna, a very loose adaptation of the tragedy that is Tess of the D’Ubervilles, transported from Victorian era England to contemporary India.
While his bleak adaptation of Jude the Obscure in 1996′s Jude kept to that novel’s time and place, Trishna has more in common with Winterbottom’s transmutation of The Mayor of Casterbridge from South West England to 1860′s California in 2001′s vastly underrated The Claim. Of that film, Roger Ebert wrote, “A movie like this rides on its cinematography”. I think that’s the best way to describe how to enter the world of Trishna, as Marcel Zyskind‘s lensing uses sunlight, shadows and spacial relationships in order to study the vast desolation within its titular heroine, played by the incandesent Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire).
Trishna is a lovely young woman of 19, born at a disadvantage, the eldest daughter of a poor rural family. In her spare time, she choreographs routines to TV images that offer an idyllic fantasy world of Bollywood dance numbers, though at the end of the day, all that stuff is for dreaming and amusement. Duty comes first.
When her father–the owner of an auto-rickshaw–gets badly injured in an accident, she becomes the family’s sole bread-winner.
The options before her are to work in a field as well as in her uncle’s clothing factory, but not before Jay (Riz Ahmed) steps back into the picture. He’s the handsome, well-to-do son of a wealthy hotel owner that couldn’t keep his eyes off of Trishna upon their first encounter a few nights before. He’s dazzled in equal parts by her beauty as well as her humble origins. When he reappears for the second time, he is made aware of the fate that awaits her and offers her a salary to work at the luxury hotel that eclipses what she’d make slaving away at menial labor jobs.
Trishna accepts his kindness as much out of necessity as for her own desire for independence as an adult. And thus begins a slow and tentative seduction between her and Jay from their first ride into the city together on his motorcycle.
The film leaves the dry, open plain as well as the claustrophobic room that is the family house, and introduces us to the well-manicured grounds of a luxury escape that works effectively as a cinematic paradise for our eyes to drink in.
In a lovely garden sequence, the camera finds a peaceful Trishna busy at work, tending to the grounds. Jay teaches her how to communicate with the family’s birds. She appears to find solace away from home in her new role, and she finds that she’s good at this job. Jay offers for her to upgrade her skill-set in hotel management, paying for a course at a local college. Trishna takes to it.
Their budding romance begins to transcend their class distinctions. Not to say that his kindness is inauthentic, but from our perspective of Jay, we’re witnessing an exercise of the male ego. He’s smitten with Trishna because of all the things his eyes are able to tell himself about her. For Trishna, it’s ultimately a game of trust between her and Jay, and her and herself. Their first kiss grows out of that place on an evening where Jay has come to find her, just in the nick of time from the leering eyes of two drunks.
What happens after the kiss remains off-screen. I won’t give anything away. What we see is that Trishna is disturbed by it. She tells her family she will not be returning to work at the hotel. Was she raped? You’ll have to decide.
Eventually, Jay comes searching for her, convincing her to take off to Mumbai with him on a venture he has involving a film production. They stay in a nice flat, always at Jay’s expense, and their romance heats up. For him, sex is the bi-product of lust; for her, again, it’s trust.
And then, two key developments occur; Jay blocks Trishna from the idea of pursuing a job on a film production and then later abandons her in Mumbai after receiving news of his father’s deteriorating health.
It becomes clear to us after this sequence that Jay has been unnecessarily cruel to Trishna, and for her part, it’s clear that her innocence and naivety compound the fact that her socio-economic circumstances essentially have made her a victim from the cradle. If she’s born into Jay’s world, it is not unreasonable for us to believe that in the sequence involving them hanging out with Bollywood actors, that it would make sense that she’d be the biggest star at that table.
The character of Tess in Hardy’s novel was torn between two suitors, Angel and Alec. In this story, those two characters are amalgamated into Jay, who changes from an optimistic young man to a depressive and then finally, an aggressive brute. He takes to reading the Kama Sutra, experimenting sexually with her in a way that leaves her cold. Perhaps sex would have meaning for Trishna if she shared a meeting of the minds with her lover, something she doesn’t have with Jay.
All along, the camera studies and contemplates the fragile beauty of Pinto as Trishna, a woman not torn between two suitors in this film, but one torn apart by a lack of good options and resources. As melodrama, the movie worked to gather a tremendous amount of my empathy for Trishna. Surprisingly, for as gorgeous as she is, Pinto plays it like her character hasn’t a clue about this fact, and it is convincing.
Michael Winterbottom does an outstanding job here in yet another new location for him. He’s about the most well-traveled director working in film, free-spirited in his story choices, always seeming to challenge himself with every new project, never wanting to repeat himself.
Helping him weave this cultural tapestry are new songs by Amit Trivedi mixed with original scoring from Shigeru Umebayashi, frequent composer to Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood For Love).
Trishna is a sensual visual delight of a film, capturing both extremities of India’s class system, and it is equally thought-provoking in a narrative that forces us to consider the plight of a young woman with the deck stacked against her.
***½ (out of 4)