Trishna is Michael Winterbottom’s modernisation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles moved to contemporary India – a transition which perhaps works better in theory than in practise.
The film follows the story of Trishna, a peasant girl played by Freida Pinto, who meets British-Indian Jay Singh, played by Riz Ahmed, the son of a wealthy hotel-owner. Transfixed by her beauty, and perhaps her innocence, he offers her a job at his father’s hotel in Jaipur, where she will be able to earn enough money to provide for her family while her father is suffering from an injury and unable to work.
So far, so Thomas Hardy. Well almost. What might take Tess fans a while to get their heads around is the fact that Ahmed’s character is actually a vague amalgamation of the two male protagonists from the novel. But while Trishna may be simply ‘inspired by’ Tess, this loose approach to adaptation does seem to present rather more problems than it is able to overcome.
Jay’s seemingly good-natured affection for Trishna transforms fairly inexplicably into something much darker, and his shift from ambitious young businessman to lazy and pampered hedonist is just as much of a mystery. Trishna, on the other hand, remains hopelessly naive throughout – something which is perhaps forgiveable when she first meets Jay, but becomes less convincing and more frustrating as she begins experience life outside her home town.
When a hugely important sex scene is unhelpfully glossed over – to the point where audiences are likely to wonder whether or not it actually took place – Jay’s later actions appear all the more bizarre. If this was an intentionally prudish approach to the more risqué themes of the narrative, then it is an approach which Winterbottom wildly abandons once the film reaches its third act.
Meanwhile, other characters – Jay’s blind and eccentric father (Roshan Seth), and a glamorous Kalki Koechlin appearing as herself, for example – deserved far more screen attention than they got. Instead, we are treated to endless shots of the sun setting over Mumbai, along with Pinto‘s well-perfected sad-eyed starring – and while both are admittedly quite stunning to watch, they do start to feel rather repetitive.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a novel which relies heavily upon the Nineteenth Century views of morality and complex protagonists which all makes for a tumultuous tale of tragic romance. Trishna should have presented a fresh perspective on Hardy’s tale. By placing the traditionally English characters within modern-day India, a country where the divisions between traditional and modern are very much alive, Winterbottom has provided an authentic backdrop for this tale of love, guilt and class divides.
While this may have been achieved to a certain extent, the culture clash evokes a slightly strange on-screen dynamic. Jay’s Western upbringing is noticeably exaggerated as talks about getting someone “on the blower”, whilst the original soundtrack from Amit Trivedi and Shigeru Umebayashi evokes an atmosphere which more usually associated with Bollywood filmmaking. The two worlds seem to jar together on screen (especially during the film’s more obviously improvised dialogue) and whilst this is arguably the point, there are times when this clash is more uncomfortable than insightful.
Winterbottom’s infatuation with Hardy (this is his third adaptation, after Jude and The Claim) and penchant for depicting doomed lovers certainly make for an appealing premise, and even a handful of truly enchanting scenes, but in the end, Trishna has rather too many flaws to forgive.
Trishna is released in the UK on 9th March 2012, take a look at the trailer below: