TRISHNA (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2012, UK) – The Troubled Maiden

The beautiful Freida Pinto as Trishna.

Micheal Winterbottom works so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with him. His latest feature sees him returning to Thomas Hardy, this time adapting Tess of the d’Urbervilles for a contemporary postmodern treatment. The setting is modern day Rajasthan and the cast is made up of Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire). I had no knowledge of Hardy going into the film and I haven’t seen any other big screen interpretations of Hardy’s novel so my judgment is based purely on the film I saw. I’m not sure how entirely successful Winterbottom is with this one. I can’t really fault the performances, camerawork or use of locations; they are uniformly vivid and engaging. My biggest criticism with Trishna is when it comes to the script – the characters do go on a journey of self-discovery but we never really feel any emotional connection with them – they remain at a distance. Perhaps this is deliberate, if so, it was the wrong decision. Additionally, the film shifts frantically in terms of narrative from one setting to another, so we never get to really fully experience and savour the milieu which is an essential part of the story.

Jay (Riz Ahmed) is a young, wealthy bachelor but looking for an outlet so to avoid having to run his father’s hotel business in Jaipur. On a trip with some friends, Jay meets Trishna (Freida Pinto), an impoverished but moderately educated girl who belongs to a large family. Jay falls in love with Trishna and gets her a job working at his father’s hotel. The courtship rituals that take place in the hotel leads to a decisive moment between the two of them and it is a moment which will come back to haunt both characters. Jay takes Trishna to Mumbai and briefly they seem content. The sequences in Mumbai involve a reflexive backstory with director Anurag Kashyap and music composer Amit Trivedi appearing as themselves. Once Trishna has revealed her dark secret, the relationship disintegrates. Jay retreats back to his father’s hotel and takes Trishna with him, humiliating her through sex. Without giving away too much about the ending, it was to be expected. The fact that Jay and Trishna cannot reconcile points to a wider class conflict at work and also underlines yet again the economic void between rich and poor in what is a rapidly transforming India. Pinto as Trishna is perfectly cast and she really does carry the film with her understated performance. At times, Winterbottom seems to rush through the narrative so the film could have done with some more time in the editing room. Winterbottom has said in interviews that the film brings together elements from European and Indian cinema. What I found most interesting was the secondary narrative of Trishna which involves her impoverished family who seem out of step with the cosmopolitan side of Mumbai. It is an obvious yet prescient conflict between tradition and modernity which is still at the heart of many of the best Indian films.

Winterbottom doesn’t make bad films; each film he has made is unique and his body of work shows an impressive range that would embarrass most contemporary filmmakers. Trishna has its flaws, like most films these days, but Winterbottom has to be praised for his creative autonomy and capacity to think cinematically about universal ideas which can just as easily and carelessly be reduced to simplistic visual fodder. Trishna has appeared without much of a fanfare and the distribution of the film has been weak. The film has received mixed reviews but given the marketable presence of both Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, I feel the distributor and marketing dept might have missed a trick here. Trishna is still on general release so it will be interesting to see how well the film performs. Writing this has made me want to go back and watch Trishna again so I can try and understand more about what exactly Winterbottom is trying to achieve. I just want to finish by saying that technically Trishna is faultless and offers some imaginative images of India. It’s just a shame that this film isn’t going to be as successful as it should have been. Ken Loach is right; the cinema screens have been colonised and the consequences are being felt each week for specialised films.

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