Film review: Trishna

Had it really looked east and dared to dance, this film could have offered so much more, says Philip Dodd

March 8, 2012


Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed

Released on 9 March

I was in a car in Mumbai a few weeks ago, on my way to an exhibition opening. I explained to my fellow passengers that I was in India partly to make a BBC series on how “the world is moving east”. “There is nothing we can do about the ignorance of the West,” responded one of my fellow passengers, more in resignation than in anger. “Where is the interest in the West in the Indian urban middle class?”

Whether her despair is right or wrong, recent “Indian” films from the West such as Slumdog Millionaire, Eat Pray Love and the new The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are ammunition for her argument: Slumdog was Cinderella-meets-slum chic; Eat Pray Love yuppie-meets-eastern mysticism; and Marigold…well, it beggars description.

It would be unfair to lump Trishna - Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation and transposition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles to India - with such films. Trishna is acutely aware of the dangers of cinematic tourism and even begins with a scene of laddish young men from Britain, some of Indian descent, on a rooftop hotel in Rajasthan. They are consuming India, on holiday. One of them, whose family has hotel interests in the region, quickly falls for a local young woman, a dancer, the Trishna of the film’s title.

Trishna is part of the current wave of what some see as “safe” literary adaptations - think of the recent Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But the critical aversion to adaptation - the belief in the purity and autonomy of cinema - is illiterate given the mongrel nature of cinema’s history. It all depends on what the film does with the source material.

Winterbottom’s Trishna will not surprise anyone who has followed his earlier films. He has a cultural restlessness and political antennae that have seen him make films in places as various as Sarajevo (Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997) and Afghanistan (In This World, 2002), and it is not hard to see why an economically powerful India, where the tensions between country and city, poor and wealthy, men and women are so acute, would compel him. It may be that Winterbottom’s fascination with these themes also repeatedly draws him back to Hardy. After all, this is Winterbottom’s third adaptation; he has already made Jude and The Claim (The Mayor of Casterbridge).

Winterbottom simplifies Hardy in Trishna. But that is in itself no problem. Look what Verdi did with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The director/writer rolls Hardy’s Angel Clare and Alec D’Urberville into Jay (Riz Ahmed), who falls for the poor Trishna (Freida Pinto) when he first glimpses her in an ancient temple and, later, when she is one of a troupe who dance for him and others in a luxury hotel. After her father is injured in an accident, Jay, drawn to her, helps her, giving her a job in one of his father’s hotels in Jaipur. She runs away after they have made love, but finds she is pregnant, has an abortion, is shunned by her family, especially her father, and is found again by Jay. He persuades her that their unorthodox relationship can more easily thrive in the anonymity of Mumbai, where he wants to go to develop a career in the film industry.

Their Mumbai life does not work out, not least because Jay has all the power and money: even Trishna’s talent as a dancer is thwarted by her lack of cash. They return to Rajasthan, where he places her as a waitress in one of the hotels belonging to his family. Their relationship carries on clandestinely. After she brings him food, Trishna services him sexually; he humiliates her, spending his spare time reading the Kama Sutra. In the end, she kills him, suddenly and brutally, and slips away back into the anonymity of the city.

Sadly, neither of the central performances carries the weight that the film needs - but that is in part the responsibility of the writer/director. We don’t understand how Jay turns from a genial layabout to a Kama Sutra-reading patriarch and Trishna has to suffer almost everything until her final violent act - which gives Pinto scant opportunity to lend Trishna an internal life.

But there is a more interesting, less narrative-driven film struggling to get out of Trishna. Dance punctuates the film: the dancers carved in stone in the temple; the troupe who perform for tourists; the young girls dancing in their home, dreaming of fame; the Bollywood chorus line Trishna so wants to join; the private dances that Jay demands Trishna performs for him. Trishna would have been so much more powerful if it had jettisoned even more of Hardy and pursued wholeheartedly dance as dream, sexuality, power, servitude. For all its decency, Trishna ends up feeling like yet another film from the West trying to “spice up” [sic] through India a tired kind of European narrative cinema.

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