Rich and powerful meets poor and powerless in this modern-day retelling of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Ubervilles.” Although Hardy’s novel was published in 1891 England, director Michael Winterbottom cleverly chooses India as his setting for this rendition of two caste-crossed lovers.
Cute but cocky, Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed) tours the subcontinent with his Anglicized Indian friends while guzzling beer, smoking marijuana, jamming to hard rock and racing in jeep-taxis on dirt roads. Speeding past majestic camel processions and vibrantly dressed locals in the picturesque countryside, the young men regard it all as background for their antics—until a beautiful woman stops Jay in his tracks.
Standing out among the omnipresent dust and stony Hindu statues, Trishna (Freida Pinto) sparkles like a bubbling spring. With innocence shining in her luminous eyes, she addresses Jay as “sir,” making it clear that the half-British, England-bred stranger looms above her in station.
Stunning, yet unsophisticated, Trishna lives in the state of Rajasthan where she helps her impoverished parents by working in the fields, selling produce, tending to livestock and cooking family meals. She also looks after her younger siblings whom she cautions to stay in school although she herself cannot because of unaffordable fees.
Misfortune strikes when Trishna and her father become accident victims, rendering him unable to work. But Jay soon comes to their rescue via his wealthy father. Initially spotting Trishna at India’s oldest temple, Jay later sees her at the hotel where she occasionally works. Sharing a dance with her, he learns of the accident and offers her a job at his father’s Jaipar hotel, some distance from her home. At the posh hotel, Trishna waits obediently on elegant patrons and Jay even enrolls her in hotel management classes. Making new friends, she seems content until Jay pursues her sexually causing her to bolt.
After Jay finds her again, the two indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle in Mumbai, which Jay calls Bombay—either out of ignorance or in affirmation of former British rule. And, while he flirts with aspirations of becoming a Bollywood producer, Jay seems too self-centered to encourage Trishna towards the dance career she yearns for. One crucial day, they both confess their secrets, which leads to Jay’s bearing a grudge and, this time, it’s he who runs. When he returns, he hustles Trishna back to the Jaipar hotel where, once again, he treats her like the hired help.
As Jay, Ahmed is afforded plenty of opportunity to show off multiple layers of his character. Unfortunately, the object of his intense interest seems to have only one personality—that of a submissive victim manipulated by her urbane lover. That is, until the shocking ending. But until then, Trishna’s inability to control her own destiny is all too apparent. A scene where she has to endure the degradation of Jay’s blind father pawing at her face while exclaiming over her beauty is haunting. Still, Pinto’s splendid acting is evident in the modest gracefulness she exhibits, and the two lead actors share an easy chemistry.
Naturally, Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography is incredible. But then again, there’s not much of India’s visually rich tapestry that can escape capture from anyone’s camera. From candid shots of bantering monkeys to strutting peacocks, every frame is authentic. Scenes of beautifully painted tut-tuts (India’s motorized rickshaws), multi-hued saris, clamoring marketplaces, and stifling alleyways where suspicious men ogle lone women are all attained effortlessly. Further, the enchanting music is never intrusive, but always complementary in scenes where it materializes.
Disparity among social classes is not the most entertaining topic to tackle in a film, and Jay’s desire for Trishna borders on being that of an affluent outsider who’s gone “slumming” for an exotic native. Perhaps Winterbottom means to have Trishna (with her unassuming charm) represent India herself while Jay (with his strong British roots) symbolizes a colonizer corrupting the pure nation state. The film’s conclusion would certainly suggest that by its featuring school children heartily reciting “The Indian National Pledge” like a mantra.
“India is my country,” they chant, “and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.”
“Trishna” opens July 20 at the Landmark Harvard Exit theater.