Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna”encompasses tragedy in a panorama of India within a dispassionate romance. This is a predictable love story, yes, but different in a sense that it is no neat march towards a triumph of love. Instead, a lingering sadness pervades the screen as a wealthy young businessman named Jay (Riz Ahmed) comes to neglect his affections for the 19 year-old Trishna (Freida Pinto), an Indian maiden from a poor rural district in Rajasthan.
This movie is preordained in a fascinating way, like a Sophocles tragedy where the characters are unable to avoid what the audiences witness at the end of the tunnel. These characters are not dumber than the audience; they just get caught up in deep feelings that overpower their ability to reason. We watch not with frustration but dread, as tragedy gradually smothers these hopeless lovers.
Winterbottom, the independent British filmmaker with a diverse filmography (“24 Hour Party People” to “The Killer Inside Me”), crafts a story that could only work as a piece. Consecutive scenes rely on the film’s underlying downward arc for the sorrow to gather meaning and momentum. If “Trishna”meandered, we would be lost in spotty bleak feelings and empty gestures. Luckily, “Trishna”is taut, fluently shot, well-acted, and maintains a sort of chilly heartache up until the rushed and meh finale.
The first half of “Trishna”is particularly thrilling. Jay is with a few buddies in Rajasthan, enjoying the rural scenery and culture. When he catches the eye of the titular character, we sense a bond developing as the tentative and virginal Trishna gradually learns to trust him. The dialogue exhibits an improvisational energy that puts this rising action above the generic boy meets girl scenario. This relationship unfolds not out of the demands of the plot, but because, well, these two characters kinda feel something.
Since Winterbottom capably sets this scenario up, the themes naturally flow through the story. What are the themes? To get a hint, “Trishna”is based on Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” which stood as a controversial statement against the sexual mores and class society of late 19th-century Britain. Its titular character – like Trishna, also an uneducated peasant–falls in love with two men–one who is much kinder than the other.
In “Trishna,” Winterbottom daringly amalgamates these two men within Jay, something which begets a flaw: his vague transition from Jekyll to Hyde is never exactly believable. But the movie holds on to Hardy’s key theme on class distinctions, predicated on the industrialist Jay and homespun Trishna, and adapts it into a modern context. This experiment works, especially in the Mumbai scenes that serve as a commercial haven where Trishna elopes with Jay and opts to pursue a career in Bollywood films.
Trishna is seduced by this urban world. Her innocence gradually leaves her as she is introduced to its indulgences. She and Jay even befriend real-life couple Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and his wife/actress Kalki Koechlin, who made a good film together recently called “That Girl with Yellow Boots”.
They have this hard-edged and bluntly practical view of the world that sideswipes Trishna’s earnest idealisms. In one scene, Anurag and Kalki observe that Trishna and Jay resemble the Mumbai “Brangelina.” Oh, and that reminds me: when Jay first meets Trishna, he teaches her to whistle, only naturally to quote that Bogart-Bacall moment in “To Have and Have Not” (“you do know how to whistle, don’t you?”). So you get the modern subtext.
Above all, Winterbottom creates an intriguing film that avoids an easy pull of emotion and appetizing catharsis. These are not weaknesses, but peculiar strengths as “Trishna”comes to teach us that love is no arbiter in lives bound by the obligations of tradition and family. This unique statement would have benefitted through a less passive protagonist. Trishna is just too hands-off with her own experiences that her final destination at the end doesn’t rally our total sympathy.
Still, this is a worthy romance imperfectly eschewed of the usual frothy affections. Winterbottom does not craft this tale with the naiveté of a fish-out-of-water filmmaker. He truly knows India and refuses to objectify it with Orient ignorance. He understands Trishna’s traditions as much as Jay’s, which makes “Trishna”as credible as it is (at times) tragic.
CAST: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom SCREENWRITER: Michael Winterbottom PRODUCERS: Sunil Bohra, Melissa Parmenter, Michael Winterbottom RUN TIME: 117 minutes MPAA: R
Parker Mott is a Canadian filmmaker and freelance film critic from Toronto, ON. He finds inspiration in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog. His favourite films are “Goodfellas”, “Fargo”, and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Currently, he is in pre-production for a fictional film that will be considerably Kafkaesque.
More of his reviews, essays, and interviews can be found at: http://www.thefinaltake.com/