Reinventing Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles in a colourful India in its own glorious revolution, Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is a bitter fall from grace.
The Fall by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With Trishna all of Michael Winterbottom’s Diwalis must have come at once. Like Jude and The Claim, it’s a return to the harrowing tragedy of Hardy. Like 9 Songs, it’s a mixtape of the music-loving director’s favourite band, this time Portishead, Kasabian and Example. And like Code 46 or In This World, it’s an opportunity once again to cast his camera over distant horizons. An Indian reworking of Tess Of The d’Urbervilles, Trishna is a gorgeous colour feast. And with its off-road steadicam style and improvised acting, it’s both vibrant and immediate, mixing high drama with a documentary kind of realism, placing actors in real locations. It might, on occasion, look like it’s sponsored by the Rajasthani tourist board, but it’s a shift that works, displacing the burgeoning industrialism, gender inequality and social mores of Hardy’s novel to a modern India on the way up.
Selected at this year’s Berlinale as Britain’s Rising Star, Riz Ahmed is certainly on the ascendant. And reunited with Winterbottom for the first time since The Road To Guantanamo, he’s superbly cast as Jay – a composite character comprising, rather bizarrely, both Angel Clare and Alec d’Urberville. It’s a difficult role, a love-struck romantic who swiftly descends into arrogant cad. But despite the awkward volte-face of the script, Riz Ahmed shows real star quality, breezing into a Mae West impression with effortless charm, ” Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” It’s Freida Pinto though who is likely to set hearts aflutter, all wrapped up in pink saris and a deer-like, wide-eyed naivety. And it’s a bittersweet journey underscored by her nose-ring, charting her rise from slum-dog to millionaire and back again as she’s whisked away from a life of rural poverty to become a trophy wife in Mumbai.
It’s a fine romance, but one that never hits Hollywood heights. Jay isn’t one to make such a deplorable marriage with a poor Indian Cinderella, so instead he sets Trishna upon a gentrification programme, turning her from untouchable hotel hostess into his personal servant in his father’s five-star hotel and ultimately his wife. They flirt in slow-mo across peacock lawns to the poignant stirrings of Shigeru Umebayashi – its delicate romance on loan from In The Mood For Love. Besotted with her new beau and her well-paid job, she dances Bollywood in her bedroom. In Jay’s room, she dances for him in new designer dresses. But all this chaste lovemaking is not enough for an Englishman on the make and unable to wait. And after he rescues Trishna from the clutches of drunken locals, the same fate awaits her as poor Tess.
A slow fade marks the rape, and in an awkward tension between consent and tearful capitulation, an unholy veil is drawn over the incident. The love story gives way to a drama of broken innocence, and Trishna flees back to her village. With Trishna choosing to have an abortion, Hardy’s narrative becomes more twisted than an Indian contortionist. Here it’s Trishna’s abortion that provokes Jay’s wedding night displeasure, in an inexplicably moralistic stand from the young Brit. But be that as it may, in Jay’s descaled eyes, Trishna’s innocence has been lost for ever and their love turns bitter.
No longer prepared to marry his once idolised paramour, Trishna becomes just another of Jay’s maidens, at his beck and call, existing purely for his pleasure. He treats her like a courtesan from the Kama Sutra, a devalued caricature of her previous incarnations as virginal maid and single lady in Mumbai – now just soiled goods. The narrative hook that keeps Trishna in the despot’s employ is an inescapable poverty that suddenly descends upon her family after her father is stuck down in a truck accident. It may not have the psychological weight of the guilt that haunts Hardy’s story, but it’s a family catastrophe that rings all too true.
Instead though, Winterbottom’s film is (yet another) film of female self-sacrifice. Trishna puts herself back in the lion’s den so her younger siblings can eat and attend school. Her fate may not be quite as crushing as Tess’s, but her’s is also a story of female empowerment, taking control of Jay’s existence, and her own, with a kitchen knife. Her harakiri moment is less crushing than Tess’s execution, but the final freeze-frame of Trishna is both a rejection of death and a refusal to posit her as a victim. Instead, Trishna ends with richly hued and spice-scented pans over the Indian landscape and a redemption from beyond the grave that affirms the fruits of Trishna’s labour, her brother and sister attending school and swearing allegiance to Mother India.
The political reading is clear; India’s innocent beauty raped and devoured by foreign and native investors, and forced, out of crippling poverty, to sell its soul and its dignity. The ending is a simplistic crowdpleaser, placing the burden of India’s post-Industrial Revolution development on the next generation. But with such a glorious celebration of India, Trishna‘s romancing of the tourist dollar is a call to arms all by itself.
Trishna is released on 9th March 2012 in the UK