Trishna is director Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, his third Hardy adaptation following Jude (1996) and The Claim (2000) (none of which I have read). This new movie stars Freida Pinto as Trishna, the lower class maiden and hired help, and Riz Ahmed as Jay, a privileged British chap who maintains his father’s hotels in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Pinto and Ahmed carry most of the weight of the film, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to their characters. Jay is more insipid than interesting and he is unaware of his major misdeed. He’s much more unaware or careless of his actions than he should be, though his wealthy background is the likely explanation. He does earn some respect for his willingness to handle family obligations and manage a hotel in some less trendy areas of India. However you feel towards him at the beginning, likely ambivalence, once you dislike him, nothing will change that view. He can’t branch out in enterprise so he instead satiates his libido.
Trishna also holds her own in the responsibility to her family department for the most part. Her character is a bit more of a mystery, we aren’t certain of her motivations a couple of times. If she is doing her duty why is she running away? Her character also merits ambivalence for the most part. There are a few surprising moments of true emotion you share with Trishna on screen, the first in a scene where she is working in her Uncle’s factory. Pinto deserves credit for her revealing gaze, afflicting the audience with her fear.
The two fathers embellish the story nicely as they weigh their children with unavoidable familial obligations. When Trishna and Jai live in Mumbai, they still can’t become independent of their parents. Jay’s businessman father (Roshan Seth) is remarkable for his gentleness and his meticulous attention to his birds which is quite the counterpoint to the obliviousness of his son. But Jay respects his father and wants to keep the family’s hotels going, and he teaches Trishna to whistle so she can care for the birds better.
Trishna becomes her family’s bread-winner when her father falls asleep at the wheel, disabling himself, injuring Trishna, and destroying their Jeep. It’s him, rather than Jay, who have the most power over Trishna—her labor will keep the family safe from the moneylenders. Later, when she is dismissed to help her uncle, you sense there is a broad cultural close-mindedness towards sexual behavior involved (though her aunt is sick). Finally, his scorn for his situation is revealed at the end when Trishna returns for the final time.
Winterbottom paints his film with the rich and vibrant colors of India and understands the problematic juxtaposition of rural India and the rising middle class. Yet the film mostly caters to a Western folks or India’s rising middle class. I see few intersections with the more populous Bollywood. Trishna avoids silly dance numbers—for the most part, there is one during a dance shoot but that seems more a tribute than a necessary element of this film. Then I imagine the love-making scenes would be not be well received in mainstream Indian movie theatres. But more problematic is the lack of depth of characters. If you divide Trishna into three main acts (First Hotel, Mumbai, Second Hotel), then you wonder why Mumbai happens, the fear so present in Trishna’s eyes makes the rest of the story unconvincing. Even if independence is her goal, her ever having a mutual relationship with Jay is implausible.
Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom arriving at Tribeca Film Festival’s US Premiere of Trishna in New York.