Review of Trishna


Trishna is a modern day reimagining of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, a classic 19th century English tragedy. The original tale followed a young woman from the South England countryside who runs afoul of the societal tumult of the industrial revolution. Director Michael Winterbottom has taken the bones of the story and transplanted them to present day India, with generally great effect. The film is essentially an examination of what goes wrong when some parts of a society change faster than others, and how anyone straddling the gap can be torn apart.

Frieda Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, plays the titular Trishna, a young woman living in near poverty with her family in a remote village. While putting in some extra hours at a nearby resort, she happens to meet Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy half British son of an Indian property developer. He and his friends are touring rural India, partly getting in touch with their heritage, but mostly driving recklessly through the desert and flirting with every pretty face they can find.

Jay is immediately attracted to Trishna, who doesn't spurn his advances, either because it wouldn't be good for her job, or because the attraction is mutual. When Trishna's father is involved in a workplace accident that threatens the family's solvency, Jay offers her a job at his father's far away hotel. From here, a romance springs up, from what ultimately proves to be a poisoned well.

Jay sees Trishna mostly as a pretty face, and a symbol of the purity that his life lacks. He's less attracted to who she is than what he thinks she represents. The film is less clear on Trishna's motivations. Is her taking the job the decision of a realist who knows it's the only way her family will survive, or is it the action of a smitten girl who's all too happy to be whisked away by a handsome scion from the city? It's hard to say.

In either case, after some on again, off again, Trishna and Jay end up in cosmopolitan Mumbai, the one place the two unmarried lovers from separate social classes can be together without raising any eyebrows. In a happier movie, this would be the point where things start coming together for our two protagonists. Jay would succeed in his quest to become a film producer, while Trishna would break into the world of Bollywood dance, maybe as a successful choreographer. With their professional lives firing on all cylinders, and still the angel of each others' eyes, they would then win over their skeptical parents, the credits would role, and everyone would be happy ever after.

However, this isn't a happy movie, it's a tragedy. As such, the film has a much grimmer story to tell. Before the two of them can figure out how to make their relationship work and live happily ever after, family obligations lead Jay back to his father's hotel, and Trishna, ever in tow, goes with him. Without the shelter of city life, their relationship is forced into the shadows, where it does not prosper.

In Mumbai, they had a flawed but growing love, but now they only have a secret tryst. In this new framework, things go downhill for Trishna very, very quickly. Jay begins to treat her less as a secret lover and more as a live-in prostitute. Then things get worse.

Dramatically, this transition could have been handled better. In very little screen time, Jay goes from being a kind of crappy boyfriend to being Trishna's tormentor and a rapist. While this darkness doesn't quite come from nowhere (Throughout the film, he has control issues and is interested in Trishna for the wrong reasons.), but in this sequence he goes straight from A to E, skipping right past B,C, and D. This doesn't break the movie, but it does ruin the flow, leaving the viewer wondering what they missed during a bathroom break they don't remember taking.

Once the story finds it's bearings again, the remainder of the film is extremely effective. Ahmed's portrayal of the newly despicable Jay is appropriately menacing and disgusting. Meanwhile, the pain that Freida Pinto portrays during Trishna's ordeals, especially during the choices she makes as the film draws to a close, is nothing short of haunting.

As a film, Trishna has the odd distinction of being both unclear and illustrative at the same time. It's unclear exactly what the film is trying to say, but each one of several interpretations is good storytelling. Is this a cautionary tale about what happens when someone accepts what's too good to be true at face value, telling us to keep our eyes wide open, lest we become trapped? Is it a story about how a desperate economy can force someone into dangerous choices? Is it an accusatory tale about how the prejudices we allow to thrive can ultimately destroy those around us?

You will leave the theater neither happy nor comfortable, which is exactly what great storytelling sometimes has to do.