Trishna, a modern-day reinterpretation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, had me thoroughly engaged throughout the duration of its running time, but had one deep and unforgivable flaw: believability. I realize that when novels are adapted for the big screen, readers expect certain events to play out that either directly mirror — or come as close to replicating — the most crucial narrative moments. However, I believe if you’re going to do a reinterpretation of a story that is so dependent on a specific period in history, its laws and customs, you better come up with a way to tweak that narrative so that it holds up in a 21st century world. Director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) gets too caught up in the novel’s climactic ending that he forgets he’s telling us a modern tale of love gone horrible wrong in a time when there are actually options, even in India where Trishna is set. Had Winterbottom not been so completely wrapped up by that love-it-or-hate-it conclusion, we might have seen some originality in Trishna aside from its exotic locales.
Freida Pinto stars as the titular character “Trishna,” a 19-year old Rajasthani girl from a poor rural family that depends on their daughter for financial stability. The family’s’ hardships worsen after their jeep is destroyed in a head-on collision, making it impossible to transport goods and food into town for selling. Without their jeep, income for the family is virtually nonexistent, and a life of begging in the streets could be a consequential next step. Fortunately for Trishna, her undeniable beauty catches the eye of Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), the son of one of India’s wealthiest hotel owners. Jay Singh wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps of entrepreneurship, but his encounter with Trisha during a visit to Rajasthani soon becomes a top priority. Singh provides an opportunity for Trisha to make a hefty amount of money for her family as a servicewoman at one of his father’s hotels. Not letting this glimmer of hope pass her by, not to mention her mutual adoration of Jay, Trisha agrees to leave her family and accept Jay’s offer.
There’s this “working girl” vibe to the first half hour of the film that leads us to believe that Trishna won’t just use this opportunity given by Jay to solely remedy her family’s financial woes, but instead use it as a stepping stone to claim her independence. Jay encourages Trishna to pursue such undertakings, and Trishna enrolls in college courses which she takes during her days off from the hotel. The chemistry between Jay and Trishna, rather Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, is magnetic. The two don’t have to say much to one another, but they romantically click after just a few shared glances of romantic pining. Ahmed’s Jay is charming because he doesn’t behave like such a stiff for being filthy rich. He has this cool, laid-back California-vibe to his demeanor that puts Trishna at ease. We later find that tranquil effect to be damning, but at the beginning of the film it’s hard not to root for this couple. Things turn awry when the pair give in to their lustful desires, leaving Trishna to second guess everything and run back home to her family, neglecting to tell Jay why she left or that she even did so at all.
After working with her uncle for a bit, Jay surprises Trishna with a visit, asking her to come live with him in Bombay. Trishna’s guilty conscience becomes an afterthought, as she quickly obliges to his request. These quick jumps in the plot after little explanation is one of the many frustrating parts about Trishna. Not five minutes goes by, and Trishna’s feelings jump from one spectrum to another, contradictions en masse. It’s easy to go along with her hasty decision, as deep down some part of you wants to see a rekindling of the pair’s passion, but in the back of your head it’s quite obvious there’s something more to this love story, something sinister that’s coming down the path a ways. In Bombay, after Trishna spills a deep secret to Jay she had kept hidden from him, his anger slowly gives way as we begin to witness a very different side to his affable persona, a transition that comes too soon and without any fair warning or justification. At this point, I knew where the film was headed, but I didn’t care for the hasty and clumsily executed way it was getting us there.
To speak any further of the plot would be ruining what’s sure to be a very controversial ending for many. I found it to be without rationality, both on the part of Trishna’s character and its modern setting. I’m going to slowly skirt around the ending as best as I can when explaining my reasona for why I found it so faulty. There are so many moments in the film where Trishna has the chance to flee from her doomed relationship, to pursue a career of her own (she longs to b a backup dancer in a music video), but she never once jumps on those liberating opportunities. I feel that in the late 1800′s, the Victorian setting of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, options for women were marginal at best, nonexistent if you came from an impoverished family like Tess’. Hardy’s novel is all about the entrapment of a woman within the realm of nobility, who finds herself sexually objectified at every turn no matter how high she climbs the social ladder. Whether a woman lived in a wealthy estate or found herself relegated to a rural establishment, there was no escaping the control of men. Reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I imagine most readers feel just as claustrophobic as Tess after reading her woes and suffocation at the hands of the nefarious Alec. Trishna takes its time to get to the “Alec” character, but when it finally conjoins with Hardy’s plot, the story rushes through events far too speedily to carry a great impact. When the shocking ending finally arrives, you feel more confused than stunned.
The ending, which has no qualms about borrowing specific details from Hardy’s novel, doesn’t seem plausible in this modern age. Irrational action only comes about when one is trapped in a corner, but Trishna, unlike Tess, has plenty of hands that reach out to her that could send her on a desired path of “liberated career woman.” That she chooses not to change the course of her doomed fate makes her not only an unsympathetic protagonist, but a weak-willed one as well. There was an understanding of the actions taking by Tess given her constricting circumstances, but with Trisha there is very little to defend when a relatively liberal world is at her fingertips. Perhaps Winterbottom’s underlying message is that times really haven’t changed, a man’s grip on a woman’s life still as tight as ever. If this is the case, why the many scenes of potential agency for Trishna? From what we know of Trishna, she’s certainly not a tractable girl who can’t make up her own mind. Pinto, who gives one of her better — albeit overly-directed to a fault — performances of her career (some argue her best), angles “Trishna” as a young girl who isn’t naive about the world nor quick to fall under its many beguiling charms. However, Trishna’s irrational choices seem to be controlled by a script that knows exactly where it wants to end up, but doesn’t realize the character they’ve created with Trishna is the antithesis of the woman she comes to be in the end.
If we throw out the unrealistic ending from the equation, Trishna is an alluring drama that provides a lens into India’s beautiful yet arduous rural lifestyle. The deconstruction of the “rags to riches” love story does make for an interesting film experience, as it’s both fascinating and alarming to see a post-Cinderella narrative play out in a less-than-ideal manner. Pinto and Ahmed, for the first half of the film, deliver some very solid, incredibly natural work with their roles. When the script calls for a closer reading of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, that’s when the two actors lose their way. Winterbottom has made some very well-received indie films before (The Trip a true classic in my eyes), but this film, while small in its own right, has a larger scope than his prior work but doesn’t come together as neatly and organically as it should. Ultimately, the trouble with Trishna — and the reason why I cannot fully recommend it despite its ability to prolong our interest — is its ineffectual adaptation of Hardy’s classic novel. This particular film would have been more respected, both in its own right and as a worthy book-to-film adaptation, if it had taken more risks and gone a different path in the end to match our contemporary social climate (think: the twist ending of West Side Story, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet). Just because you’re adapting a novel from the 1800s, doesn’t mean your film has to be as antiquated.
Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is currently in limited release, having just been released this past Friday, July 13th.
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