TRISHNA. Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Rated MA 15+ (Strong violence and sex scenes). 117 minutes.
Trishna is Tess of the D’Urbervilles transferred and adapted to the 21st century and to changing contemporary Indian culture.
Writer-director, Michael Winterbottom, one of the most consistently busy British directors with a film, feature or documentary, or a television film/series, every year since 1989, has a love for the novels of Thomas Hardy. He filmed Jude in the mid-90s as the period piece that it was.
He adapted The Mayor of Casterbridge with The Claim in 2000, using a mining setting in America. Now, he has modernised Hardy.
Perhaps a good way to describe the drama and its impact is ‘slow-burn’. This is rarely an overtly passionate treatment of Tess. While there is an intensity within her, it bursts out only at the end. Her patron and lover, Jay, seems a decent enough type. While he does descend into a sexual obsession with Trishna, sometimes possessive, sometimes callous, Riz Ahmed seems just too nice or pleasant a type to be as bad as the screenplay suggests.
However, the turning point in the relationship between Trishna and Jay is a low-key scene but very effective. She confides trustingly in him, never expecting his hesitation, his criticising her, with a sense that their love can never be the same again.
One reason why Hardy’s story translates well to India is the continuing class separation, The gap (which might be lessening materially with growing Indian prosperity) in what each class is supposed to think and how they are to act, especially in an unmarried relationship, is powerful enough to produce deception, cover-up and humiliation in exposure. Jay is well-to-do, his father owning many hotels. Trishna comes from a Rajasthan village, very traditional in outlook. The propriety of attitudes contrasts with the more easy-going, accepting or permissive, attitudes of people in Mumbai.
Where the film is striking is in its portrayal of India. The visual detail of Rajastahn contrasting with the verve and colour of Mumbai, vista after vista, colour after colour, image after image, makes for constant amazement. The audience is immersed in India, poor village life, service in tourist hotels, wealthy apartments in Mumbai with ocean views, the details of the streets and ordinary life. But, the Mumbai episodes also focus on Indian cinema, Indian television and advertising. Trishna goes to dance classes, is on set for Bollywood musical numbers, is faced with a different and modern world that she is not used to. Her love for Jay carries her along but is tested by his mistrust, his possessing her, his taking her away from this gaudy but exhilarating world.
Put Hardy characters and themes together with Winterbottom’s portrait of changing India (more effective than a travel film) and the result is a lighter version of Hardy (except the end). Probably, the most intense love story we witness is that of Michael Winterbottom for India.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 10, 2012.