Trishna (Michael Winterbottom, 2011)

*This is part of my London Film Festival 2011 coverage. Four Films, Four Days …
“Can’t you do this one thing for me… after all I’ve done for you…”
Michael Winterbottom has now adapted three Thomas Hardy novels. In 1996, Winterbottom directed Jude starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, adapted from Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. In 2000, he directed The Claim with a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge. This is his third venture into Hardy’s literature – and it is one of Hardy’s most critically-acclaimed pieces – Tess of d’Urbervilles. This was a controversial novel in it’s day – 1891 – with lots of censorship and recieving intially mixed-reviews. But Winterbottom is no stranger to controversy as only last year he directed The Killer Inside Me, a film which portrayed scenes of extreme, relentless violence whilst in 2004, his film 9 Songs  courted controversy as it included multiple scenes that included the lead actors having sexual intercourse and scenes of ejaculation. Trishna may not appear controversial but, upon closer inspection, the idea of portraying an unmarried couple in India having passionate-sex within traditional Indian palaces whilst wearing – and taking off – cultural clothes, created to decorate the woman but crucially, to hide the female skin … it seems we are in controversial territory again. The question is whether it has purpose.
We are in safe hands as our two leads actors are Slumdog Millionnaire’s Frieda Pinto and Four Lion’s Riz Ahmed. Pinto chosen for her young, innocent look – that demands attention as she becomes deeper and further involved with Ahmed. Ahmed chosen as, akin to his role in Four Lions, he is playing a role that, though distasteful, we appreciate how likable he is, and why Pinto is attracted to him.
Social and Class Conflict
By setting the stage in contemporary India you have multiple conflicts at stake. I have read how there is conflict between the old and new education – the expectations of education offered to children and the reality as they grow up. There is a conflict in the urbanisation and industrialisation of India – the farming and country where Trishna (Pinto) comes from and the hustle and bustle of the city, alongside the affluent and business world that Jay (Ahmed) hails from.
Though these are true, I believe Winterbottom has ensured that Hardy’s conflict of class and social status remains at the forefront of the film. The film begins as we see Jay and his friends enjoy the end of their holiday whilst Trishna meets Jay as she is working. Even as the men drive to the airport, Jay decides to stop the car and speak to Trishna – offering to assist by hiring her within his Father’s hotel. The entire look of her house and his car, as it sits on the side of the road almost imitates a shop on the side of the road – as if Jay has driven up, bought his woman, and returned to the car guaranteeing a relationship. He even jokes about how his friends are desperate to buy “perfume” from the airport. He knows that he is in a position of power and wealth – a power and wealth that she does not possess. He offers it to her and, because of her own circumstance, she accepts. But a relationship founded on this uneven surface will inevitably face a conflict. 
Family Expectations
I do find it fascinating how now, in a time of WAGS and disdain for women who purely seek men out for their wealth, that Winterbottom provides us with a film that actually portrays a woman who is bound to her family. When Trishna and Jay initially spend the night together – her shame forces her to leave the job and return to her family. Her duty to her family, initially, means more to her than anything else – it is through realising she is pregnant and subsequent abortion, that she fractures her relationships. And if you were to summarise the destruction of family in a single action – abortion would fit the bill.
Tragic Conclusion
I felt that, as we moved into the third act of the film, you could feel the length of the film. Clocking in at only 117 minutes, it really isn’t that long, but maybe this is a film that Winterbottom has made knowing clearly the text by Thomas Hardy – and expecting you to know the same. I have mentioned many times about the initial experience of a film is always about the narrative – where the film is taking you. You want to know what is happening next. Through multiple watches, you can get to grips with the characters and consider the beauty of the context. I would expect that, by knowing the source material, you can enjoy the film much more through seeing the opposing landscapes of Mumbai and Jaipur, seeing the beautiful landscape of Rajasthan – the Bollywood scene, the love of family and relationships, the stunning palaces-turned-hotels and beautiful patterns and Indian designs on the sari’s worn. But, as I have not read Tess of the d’Urberville’s, I was personally desperate to see where the story would lead.
It is interesting to note how Jay and his affluence – and education – ignores these traditions. He doesn’t wear traditional Indian clothing and even changes Trishna to adapt her clothes. As the film progresses his approach to sex changes – initially loving and sensitive, he becomes aggressive and dominating. His Fathers business seems to be all about converting old palaces and turning them into hotels – the destruction of history for the sake of financial wealth. Though the film ends portraying the end of Jay and Trishna’s relationship – maybe the real tragedy is the loss of identity and gradual change that those in a position of power and wealth are enforcing.
Trishna is a beautiful film with outstanding acting from both Pinto and Ahmed – the multiple layers force you to analyse the differing perspectives of the two characters and will ensure that you will revisit the film time and time again.

*On a side note, Shigeru Umebayashi provides some incredible original music – stunning waltz’s that vividly recalls A Single Man and In the Mood For Love.
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  1. Nice write-up, sounds like a good film.
    Do you have any thoughts on western directors depicting 'the other'. Or communities that they are completely outside of.
    I know that this is based on a novel, but wondered if you had any thoughts on it.
    Though not based in India, I find western takes on Africa increasingly patronising; especially as I see more organically created independent African cinema actually made within the continent.
    Slumdog did a great job with India and I'm not saying that filmmakers outside a national culture cannot depict it, I just wonder if this one seemed patronizing or distanced?

  2. Thanks Mike,

    I think Winterbottom is very much aware of the cultural identity of India. I did not believe he was being patronising. Inevitably, there is only so much scope you can have in a two-hour film, but it seemed more the backdrop to this story rather than the central theme. I think the traditions prevalent in india are deemed archaic to the western world – and therefore it provides a good context to base Hardy's novel within. I guess the choice was a modern world steeped in tradition and expectation or a traditional world, adapting the source as literally as possible – Winterbottom chose the former. In comparison to SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE, I do believe that this film is much less 'rosy' in comparison – without explicitly showing the poverty – you can see it in the background: Trishnas family, the dancers living accomodations … without drawing direct attention to it, you are aware that it is there.

  3. I haven't seen the film. But, in general, being an Indian myself, I don't like the way India is portrayed in the western films (including Slumdog. Maybe it is a nice film, but I cannot go beyond the way is shows India)
    And you are right Simon. The traditions prevalent in india are deemed archaic to the western world and hence A Woman bound to her family is a very banal thing in India. And lastly, no disrespect, but its Jaipur. Not Jaiper. 🙂

  4. Thanks for your comment – I will make the spelling changes accordingly! Well, the most successful worldwide films depict things which, on the one hand we relate or have understood to be true, whilst on the other, we can feel as if we are learning something. LIke AMELIE is a very romantic notion of France, but it fits into what we think we know and builds on it. I would be very interesting in an Indian's take on TRISHNA because, though I think it is a great film, opposed to the context which is always going to fail to capture the true world it depicts, is the story in any way an accurate understanding of traditions and etiquette?

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