Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is the fourth theatrical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The first two adaptations, silent films released in 1913 and 1924 respectively, have since been declared lost. The next adaptation, however, was well preserved even before its American premiere in 1980. This would be Roman Polanski’s Tess, a romantic melodrama that, like the novel, was set in Victorian England. Trishna, a modernized retelling that shifts the setting to India, is very much like Tess in that it tells the story of an innocent young woman whose life is ultimately destroyed by love, societal values, unfortunate turns of events, and above all, male dominance. It’s tragic, but not unnecessarily so; we understand the gravity of the situation, and we recognize that the conclusion is inescapable.
Trishna (Freida Pinto) lives a meager existence with her large family in a village in Rajasthan. The eldest daughter, she helps pay the bills by working at a nearby resort as a greeter and cocktail server. It’s during one of her night shifts that she meets a British businessman named Jay (Riz Ahmed), the son of an ailing but wealthy property developer (Roshan Seth). Jay has come to India at his father’s request to manage a luxury resort in Jaipur. His initial meeting with Trishna was essentially only a casual encounter; it isn’t until her father destroys his Jeep and hurts himself in an accident that their relationship becomes much more serious. That’s when Jay offers Trishna the chance to work at his hotel for a relatively sizeable sum, enough to provide for her family. During her time as his employee, they fall in love, and in due time, they have sex.
In Polanski’s film, Tess is raped and soon thereafter gives birth to a sickly baby that immediately dies. In Winterbottom’s film, Trishna’s inevitable pregnancy is terminated under duress from her father, who is, to put it mildly, old fashioned. In both films, the title characters have been saddled with the same secret, one that could forever ruin a potentially happy life with the men they love. Jay, a combination of the Alec Stokes-d’Urberville and Angel Clare characters from Tess, is initially not made aware of Trishna’s pregnancy or the resulting abortion, allowing for scenes that give Trishna hope for a better life. She and Jay eventually move to Mumbai, where both dabble in the Bollywood scene, Trishna in front of the camera and Jay behind. The cracks eventually begin to show on their seemingly solid relationship, most interestingly when they tour their new apartment and Jay shows Trishna the kitchen.
Although Jay seems to be in love with Trishna, he will in due time make the most astounding of transformations, namely from a charming young man into a controlling monster. Ideally, Trishna would have been able to approach him with news of her pregnancy. Realistically, she’s part of a culture where having a child out of wedlock is considered disgraceful, not just for the woman but for her family as well. This is despite the fact that there have been advancements in economic growth, mobility, and education, both in urban and rural areas. With this in mind, exactly how could Trishna confess to Jay? You’d think he’d be more progressive, considering his British upbringing, but the truth is that he’s essentially a spoiled brat who flaunts his status as a fiancée would her ring.
The other side of the issue is Trishna’s father, a man so traditional that not even the good money she earns can persuade him to look past her sin – which, incidentally, may not have been a sin at all but rather an act that was forced upon her. So now it comes down to an issue we tend to dance around, especially in circumstances like this: Was it consensual, or was it rape? It may not be as clear cut as it seems; Jay’s initial act of kindness, coupled with his handsome looks and alluring demeanor, effectively reduced the naïve and impressionable Trishna into a state of total submission, which is to say that she probably would have jumped off a cliff if he asked her to do so. It was more mental than physical, I believe. He took advantage of a situation by seducing her. Regardless, her resulting pregnancy made her damaged goods in the eyes of her father.
This, combined with Jay’s drastic personality shift, paves the way for a deeply unpleasant yet highly appropriate ending. Unlike Tess, in which the possibility of a happy turnaround carried through to the final shot, Trishna makes it abundantly clear that no such possibility exists. The title character is nothing more or less than a hapless victim of circumstance. If my description of this movie has made it sound like an overwrought soap opera, you should know that I don’t believe the plot was intended to be the main focus. It’s really more about character development, specifically in relation to culture, and theme. We see that Trishna is in distress, and we feel her pain, and within the context of the story, we understand the reasons behind every decision she makes.
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more