Stars: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Anurag Kashyap, Roshan Seth, Kalki Koechlin and Aakash Dahiya.
Writer/Director: Michael Winterbottom, adapted from the novel ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy.
Running Time: 117 mins.
The vibrant, buoyant colours of India and the strong personalities of its people hide a very dark heart in the always-idiosyncratic Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna. Reimagining the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ as a young woman journeying from a poor village upbringing to the bustling cityscapes of modern Indian life proves a (mostly) inspired idea from a director whose work has always exemplified a fearless intelligence.
The prolific Brit’s best of the last decade have been the films that suit his naturalistic style, notably The Trip, 9 Songs and Genova. That said, it is impossible to dismiss his more ‘cinematic’ works, such as The Killer Inside Me and Code 46, as style-over-substance diversions. Trishna is a film that combines both – a lush colour palette that captures the region’s flavours lovingly, as well as an intimate drama filled with strong character-driven moments. That Trishna does not quite amount to the sum of its parts is not as disappointing as it sounds, though one wishes the overall impact was as potent as key moments along its path.
As the titular protagonist, Freida Pinto connects as a foil for the film’s themes and structure. Though it may be politically incorrect to suggest, a great deal of the sympathy one feels for Trishna stems from the sheer luminosity of Pinto on-screen. Her character is so bound by traditional class and gender-based confinement, the journey happens to her, rather than of her doing. As such, her wide-eyed, unshakeable devotion to goodness almost plays like a character weakness; ultimately, we are rooting for Pinto, not Trishna, to emerge unscathed.
The course of events that dictate her life are largely decided by her wealthy but immature and frustrated boyfriend, Jay (a strutting Riz Ahmed). Struggling to break free from the life of a resort manager for his ailing father’s hotel empire, he is drawn to the innocence and integrity of the shy Trishna. Ahmed plays Jay as a hopeless romantic who believes his well-to-do lifestyle can offer Trishna the same (false) happiness that he enjoys, but his idolization of her turns sour after a secret from their past is revealed.
Jay’s descent into self-loathing, substance reliance and subsequent sexual abuse of Trishna seems incongruous to the first and second-act plotting. Winterbottom’s intent is clear – Jay’s dreams are crumbling and he will take Trishna with him at any cost. But the retribution she takes upon him is the zenith of the film’s shift in tone; it’s an undeniably potent scene, staged with an intensity that reminds one of Winterbottom’s much-debated violence in The Killer Inside Me, but it doesn’t ring true (nor, for that matter, does Jay’s hasty about-face in his desires for her).
Despite such discussion-starting reservations, Trishna does emerge as a compelling study of a young woman of traditional faith and her place in the contemporary Indian world. Winterbottom has been open about the parallels between the rampant industrial growth and established social structure of India today and the old English setting of Hardy’s novel; the director plays those cards with the smarts we have come to expect. There is also the vivid authenticity he captures via the stunning widescreen cinematography of longtime collaborator, Marcel Zyskind.