‘Trishna’: The anti-‘Slumdog’

July 13, 2012

Gorgeously shot and acted with aching tragic truthfulness, Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna” is a romance of depth and feeling.

Part of that, of course, is the source material; Winterbottom, who also wrote the script, has transposed Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” to modern India, where class differences still hold the kind of sway they did in Hardy’s time in England.

But Winterbottom, one of most adventurous and varied directors working today, takes it further. He captures the world of these characters and the contrasts they represent. The tragedy is multilayered, operating on both personal and more macro levels in this story.

Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays the title character, Trishna, who still lives at home in a small Indian village. But she is forced to go to work as a hotel maid when her father, who supports the family with his delivery business, is injured in an accident.

At the luxury hotel where she finds a job, Trishna is one of many young women cleaning rooms and delivering meals. But then she captures the attention of Jay (Riz Ahmed), who runs the hotel for his father back in England. Shy and reserved, Trishna is like catnip to the wealthy young playboy, who genuinely falls for her when she initially plays hard to get. Well, hard to get implies intent; she is genuinely demure but, to him, it reads the other way.

But his father – a wealthy hotel magnate – disapproves and pulls him away. Trishna, now pregnant, goes home, has an abortion, then goes to work for an uncle in slave-like conditions.

Jay, however, comes back for her and takes her to Mumbai. Before long, she is Jay’s girlfriend, imagining a future as his wife. He sets her up in a fancy apartment and makes her part of his social circle. When he’s talked into producing a Bollywood film, she watches from the sidelines – until she is given a part dancing in the film itself.

Ultimately, however, she lives at Jay’s whim – and still bears responsibility for helping to support her family back at home. When Jay’s father becomes ill and he must return to London, Trishna admits her terminated pregnancy to him – and it obviously has an impact. When he returns to Mumbai and reignites their affair – on far different terms than before – she ultimately is pushed to her limit.

Pinto is a quiet actress whose face does amazing work, even when she is the picture of stillness. Her warm eyes and usually hidden smile convey more than she’s ever actually allowed to say out loud.

Recasting Hardy’s tale of class ambition and crass indifference to the lower orders in India works perfectly. Obviously, India isn’t the only country in the world whose women are treated badly – as property instead of people – but it offers a stark contrast between modern times and ingrained attitudes, set against a backdrop whose history is hard to overcome.

Pinto is stunning in this role: vulnerable, with surprising strength but little will. She allows herself to be used – but, ultimately, not to be used up. Ahmed, as the dilettante lover/playboy Jay, finds real emotions, but also the unshakable sense of someone to whom privilege and entitlement seem a given.

Beautifully shot, acted with quiet power, “Trishna” will break your heart.

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