Trishna follows the tale of a young Indian woman’s personal tragedy, representing the plight of countless women in oppressive circumstances and making her a memorable heroine.
Director Michael Winterbottom presents a fresh take on Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Set in contemporary India, in a time where rural tradition struggles against the onslaught of global mobility, Trishna conveys the simple yet powerful tale of a young woman’s personal tragedy.
The film stars Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Immortals) as Trishna, a quiet girl from a poor family in rural Rajasthan. While participating in a traditional dance at a local resort, Trishna catches the eye of Jay (Riz Ahmed), a young British-Indian entrepreneur in town to prepare for the eventual management of his father’s hotel.
One day, when Trishnas’ father loses the family livelihood in an accident, Jay offers Trishna a lucrative job in his family’s hotel. She eventually accepts, and the two grow close after Trishna is nearly assaulted in Jaipur. Their connection leads to harsh consequences for Trishna, who returns to her family. During a stint at a factory, she meets Jay again, and the two elope to Mumbai.
In the city, the couple enjoy a life of idyllic domesticity. Trishna and Jay pursue their respective dreams of dancing and producing Bollywood films. However, the sudden illness of Jay’s father leads to a drastic revelation, and Jay discards his glamorous lifestyle to become a hotelier again. Trishna’s ambitions also go unfulfilled when she is evicted from the shared apartment.
When Jay returns, they move to a hotel in Rajasthan, where Jay’s growing frustration causes the relationship to deteriorate into emotional and sexual abuse. Throughout this, Trishna never once complains – until, in a moment of courage, she finally asserts her own agency.
Director Winterbottom, who is famous for his adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels, has opted for cast improvisation over a concrete script, and it shows. The dialogue is sometimes too vague, and gets in the way of characterisation, but fortunately, the actors’ skill as performers cast is enough to make Winterbottom’s gamble succeed.
Throughout the film, Pinto gives a steadfast performance. Her haunted, submissive resignation can be inscrutable and often infuriating, but Trishna grew up in a community where the desires of women were secondary to that of men, hence her difficulty in articulating her feelings of doubt and displacement.
Leading man Jay, who lives in the shadow of his rich father, sees Trishna as a personal project, a symbol of purity, and later, a reminder of his failures. Ahmed plays Jay with a consistent sense of inferiority and entitlement that makes the character believable. In the end, it is apparent that both characters are products of their environments.
The storyline is supported by strong production values. On-location cinematography conveys a candid image of India, where the nation is neither excessively gritty nor oversaturated with bright colours. In true Bollywood fashion, Winterbottom turns many bleak shots into watchable musical montages, set to delightful original music by veteran composers Amit Trivedi and Shigeru Umebayashi.
Overall, the film is a powerful production, aided in no small way by the nuanced performances. It is both faithful to the spirit of Hardy’s original novel and a homage to the time-honoured conventions of Hindi cinema. Trishna is a memorable heroine: a martyr representing the plight of countless women in oppressive circumstances. Her tragedy will remain with audiences long after the credits have rolled.
Trishna opens in Melbourne cinemas on May 10.