Rating: 14A – Sexual Content, Substance Abuse
Run Time: 117 minutes
Now playing in limited release (at the Varsity Theatre in Toronto, ON).
Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna encompasses tragedy from west to east India, all in the spirit of a dispassionate romance. This is a predictable love story, yes, but different in a way that it is not so neatly about a triumph in love. A severe, lingering sadness pervades the screen as a wealthy young businessman named Jay (Riz Ahmed) comes to neglect his affections for the 19 year-old Trishna (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto), an Indian maiden from a poor rural district in Rajasthan.
This movie is preordained in the most fascinating sense, like a Sophocles tragedy where the characters are unable to avoid what the audiences see at the end of the tunnel. These characters are not dumber than the audience, they just get caught up in deep feelings that overpower their rationality. Therefore, we watch not with frustration but dread as tragedy gradually smothers these hopeless lovers.
Winterbottom, the independent British filmmaker with a diverse CV (24 Hour Party People to The Killer Inside Me), crafts a story that could only work as a piece. Consecutive scenes rely on the film’s underlying downward arc for the sorrow to gather momentum. If Trishna meandered, we would be lost in spotty bleak feelings and empty gestures. Luckily, Trishna is taut, fluently shot, well-acted, and maintains a sort of chilly heartache up until the rushed and toothless finale.
The first half of Trishna is particularly thrilling. Jay is with a few buddies in Rajasthan, enjoying the rural scenery and culture. When Jay catches an eye of the titular character, we sense a bond developing as the tentative and virginal Trishna gradually gains Jay’s trust. The dialogue exhibits an improvisational energy that puts this rising action above the generic boy meets girl. This love happens not out of the demands of the plot, but because, well, the two characters kinda feel something.
Since Winterbottom capably sets this scenario up, the themes naturally flow through the story. What are the themes? Well, Trishna is based on Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which stood as a controversial statement against the sexual mores and class society of late 19th-century Britain. Its titular character – like Trishna, also an uneducated peasant – falls in love with two men – one who is much kinder than the other.
In Trishna, Winterbottom daringly amalgamates these two men within Jay, which begets a flaw: his transition from Jekyll to Hyde is never exactly believable. But the movie holds on to Hardy’s key theme on class distinctions – here the industrialist Jay and homespun Trishna – and adapts it into a modern context. This experiment works, especially in the scenes in Mumbai, a commercial haven where Trishna elopes with Jay and opts to pursue a career in Bollywood.
Trishna is seduced by this urban world. Her innocence gradually leaves her as she is introduced to its indulgences. Her and Jay even befriend real-life Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and his wife/actress Kalki Koechlin, who made a good film recently called That Girl with Yellow Boots. They have this hard-edged and bluntly practical view of the world that sideswipes Trishna’s earnest idealisms. In one scene, Anurag and Kalki observe that Trishna and Jay resemble the Mumbai Brangelina. Oh, and that reminds me: when Jay first meets Trishna, he teaches her to whistle, only naturally to quote that Bogart-Bacall moment in To Have and Have Not. So you get the modern subtext.
Above all, Winterbottom has created an intriguing film that lacks an easy pull of emotion and an appetizing catharsis. These are not weaknesses, but peculiar strengths as Trishna comes to teach us that love is no arbiter in lives bound by the obligations of tradition and family. This unique statement would have benefitted, I think, through a less passive protagonist. Trishna is just too hands-off with her own experiences that her final destination at the end doesn’t rally our total understanding.
Still, this is a worthy romance imperfectly eschewed of, well, the romance. Winterbottom doesn’t merely craft this tale with the naivete of a fish-out-of-water filmmaker. He knows India and refuses to objectify it with Orient ignorance. He understands Trishna’s traditions as much as Jay’s, which makes Trishna as credible as it is tragic.