Note to anyone who has yet to see Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, which stars Freida Pinto and just opened in a limited theatrical release July 13 in Los Angeles and New York City: do not fall into the trap of entering the movie theater with preconceived expectations of what you might see during the course of nearly two hours. Remember, this is an adaption of a popular Victorian romantic tragedy in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so there will be an obvious element of predictability. Oh, and Ms. Pinto has had her fair share of oversights and write-offs. The naysayers will point out Mr. Winterbottom perhaps could have done more to leave audiences guessing or question whether Ms. Pinto has evolved enough as an actor to be something – anything – more than a pretty face riding the coattails of Slumdog Millionaire. Such naysayers miss the bigger picture of what Trishna stands for: it is symbolic of an India trying to find its true place in the world, as told through Western eyes.
Indeed, contemporary India is the true star of Trishna, with vivid cinematography and varying but well selected locations that collectively peek into a contrasting dynamic of culture caught between old traditions and new directions. This story is personified in Ms. Pinto’s Trishna and Riz Ahmed’s Jay, a pair of polar opposite characters caught in tragic romance.
Not to be confused with India’s popular Bollywood film industry, which produced mainstream Hindi film with heavy doses of peppy romance, merry singing and dancing, and Cinderella-like storylines, Trishna embodies the current trend of what is Indian Independent Cinema. A genre recently made popular by Anurag Kashyap, even the Western renditions of Indian Independent lend itself to more tragic story trajectories such as the one told in Trishna.
To be fair, Mr. Winterbottom does not reinvent the wheel. In Trishna, he does not try to revolutionary or even different. Instead, Mr. Winterbottom worked well within the confines of the alter-genre, so much so that he even brought in some of the biggest names associated with Indian Independent Cinema, be it Mr. Kashyap himself, his girlfriend and actor Kalki Koechlin, and music director Amit Trivedi.
Combining Jay’s courtship of Trishna with a few extended cameos and some appearances of actually Bollywood dancers, we see a revealing slice of the real India that is often not told in the country’s multiple film industries or overlooked in productions such as Slumdog Millionaire or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In Trishna we see the eldest child of a rural farm family who, like millions of villagers in real life, is mesmerized by the fantasy of Bollywood’s song and dance cultures. In Jay, we meet the new breed of adults raised in privileged households whilst struggling with “first-world problems” and believing that a choice not to follow in his or her parents’ footsteps is a form of righteous rebellion.
As Trishna is drawn to the hustle-and-bustle of Bollywood’s home in Mumbai and Jay seeks to get into film producing instead of taking over his father’s wealthy business, the fates of these two individuals become inextricably linked – and, as Trishna is a tragedy, for the worse. The personal desires of these two characters ultimately serve as a major metaphor of India’s larger populace, and that is where Trishna hits a home run. More than anything, Trishna is symbolic of India’s current sociological development. Though not necessarily a sociologically academic film, there are many takeaways for the audience, with Mr. Winterbottom offering one perspective of how best to analyze the current state of Indian culture. What better – and perhaps easier – way for Mr. Winterbottom to share his perspective than to use an acclaimed and widely read novel in Tess of the D’Urbervilles?
Interestingly enough, the mere fact Mr. Winterbottom was able to use Mr. Hardy’s famed novel as a vehicle to tell his story is quite revealing in and of itself, as the selection 1891 publication to provide perspective of a culture living in the twenty-first century says a lot about where that culture is in its development. In many cases, it can indeed be said that contemporary India is today where European society was at the turn of the nineteenth century, where the growing pains of Europe’s (and England’s) forward-looking urban cores were struggling to co-exist with the time-honored ways of its extensive agrarian past. The same can be said of India, where it, too, is dealing with competing identities rooting from a modernizing urban population that is becoming more and more disconnected from the rest of the country’s agrarian roots.
(A similar argument has academically been made where the best way to analyze the current state of India’s economic and political development is to peg the two measures against where the United States was at the same age of 64 years after independence from the British).
When watching Trishna with this sociological perspective, it makes understanding – and appreciating – the film so much easier. We can understand how a nineteenth century European novel translates so well in twenty-first century India. The class struggles that existed in the United Kingdom during Hardy’s day are very much present in modern day India, as is glaringly evident in how Jay and Trishna interact throughout the film.
Elaborating even more on the interplay between the film’s two central characters, Jay and Trishna also symbolically represent the duality of India’s personal mindsets. On the one hand, we see a submissive Trishna, who dutifully does as her boyfriend – and at other points in the film, her father – tell her to do. She has her own personal ambitions, but they are never to be in conflict with her superiors. Her mission in life is to make everyone around her happy, even it if means her own happiness is sacrificed. Such a mentality is very real in rural India.
Conversely, Jay has a sense of entitlement and is more concerned with how he will deal with his “first world problems” instead of making an effort to develop a loving and respectful relationship with Trishna. He views her as what he thinks she should be: a subservient woman who should know her place is in the kitchen and not in the dance studio. Such a viewpoint can also be found among India’s rural and urban elite alike.
When judging Trishna from this perspective, it would be unfair to peg the film’s ultimate standing on whether the story was too predictable or if Ms. Pinto is on the proper trajectory to becoming a world-class actor. (As a sidebar, Ms. Pinto and Mr. Ahmed both deliver above average acting performances). Instead, Trishna is a revealing commentary on the current state of Indian culture and told in a visually striking manner that makes the film’s overarching themes of modern struggle amidst cultural growing pains the ultimate star.
Accordingly, Buzzine Bollywood recommends watching Trishna, which is now playing in Los Angeles and New York City.
‘Trishna’ is Rated R for Drug Use, Language, Sexuality, Violence.
Reasons to like: Cinematography, Commentary, India is the star
Fans will also like: Miral, Tess (1979, by Roman Polanski), That Girl In Yellow Boots