Western classics translated to an Indian setting have had remarkable success over the years. Most recently it was Vishal Bharadwaj who rode Othello to huge success with Omkara (2006). In a retelling of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Winterbottom and company foray into India to give us Trishna. Sumptuous in it’s setting, transferring a tale that originally hinged on Victorian era mores falls short when it is juxtaposed on the fast-forward trending of India in 2012.
After a successful entry with Slumdog Millionaire, Pinto has not had any film released in India even as she has become something of a rage in Hollywood (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Immortals, You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). As the titular Trishna, Pinto is thrust into a demanding role that has had a spotty record even in Hollywood. After meeting Jai, a rich British-Indian touring his family’s hotel properties in Rajasthan, Trishna accepts Jai’s offer to work for better pay at another one of the family’s hotels farther away. Moving away from her struggling family—her father makes a living driving an auto rickshaw—Trisha sets out on a fateful odyssey with Jai.
And therein lays Trishna’s biggest limitation. The degree to which Trishna is coy and submissive is startling, if not downright annoying. She goes with the flow and makes many a life and life-style changing decisions without asking Jai any questions or with any hesitation. She is like a wind-up toy in the hands of the rich and powerful Jai. In the modern context, of India perhaps—necessarily more so than in many other countries—Trishna comes across as an affront. In the Indian setting—and mind you, a very gorgeous Indian setting at that—more than one stereotype is reinforced. The exploitation of semi-educated, rural women lured away on the promise of jobs has been chewed through as a script previously.
The fact that Jai is “Indian” in appearance and yet speaks only English drives home the rich, exotic “foreigner” on the prowl for unsuspecting and therefore “true” Indian boilerplate scenario.
Pinto is challenged in this role. She plays the village belle, and even though her journey takes her far and away, she never comes out from under that shadow. Ahmed’s Jai is stoic.
Because Jai hides behind the semi-anonymity offered by his fabulous wealth, he remains unknowable and one-dimensional, until it is too late. Kashyap and Koechlin, real-life spouses, play themselves in wonderful caricatures of the self-important actress-diva and her mover-shaker filmmaking husband.
By far the most interesting character is Roshan Sheth in a too-short role as Jai’s blind, Anglophile and real-estate magnate father. Then there is Pinto’s beauty, which is exploited thoroughly to become another player in the movie. Trishna is so beautiful that she stands out in the line-up of the hotel staff at Jai’s family property. It takes Jai’s blind father to correctly sense that underneath the bleached-white hotel maid’s uniform there is a shy, scared young woman struggling to become an Individual—with an I. With a foreshadowing flippant comment made in passing, Sheth’s character also hints that Jai’s modus may not be quite the romantic, sacrificing playboy-with-a heart we are led to believe.
Respected British filmmaker Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) is a huge aficionado of Thomas Hardy. After Jude and The Claim, Trishna is Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Hardy classic. It is a shame that the carefully put together Trishna did not get set in India during the 1950s. Back then, this exact same set up could possibly have succeeded as a never-look-back cautionary tale against feudalism that India’s then-fledgling democracy was moving away from. In 2012, when India is moving on with strong woman-centered entries such as No One Killed Jessica, Trishna is visually striking and yet far removed from the ideal poster for the emerging new Indian woman.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.