In many ways, Michael Winterbottom's Trishna couldn't have come at a better time. In this Indianized adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles', Winterbottom tells the story of class, caste and sexual politics stirring the pot in India's clash between old world and modernization. It's not so much a bridging of divides as a prodding reminder of how things can also go horribly, tragically wrong. With a potent theme and beautifully captured locations, this Freida Pinto-Riz Ahmed starrer misses out one key element - being convincing enough for the viewer to be drawn into the world of the film. Trishna is a very layered film, with a lot happening, but leaves you at the end not that much more concerned than at the beginning.
Pinto plays Trishna, a poor village girl who gets swept up in the charms of Jay (Ahmed), a rich British-India hotel heir. Their romance starts off as the unassuming, saccharine stuff of fairytales and gradually gets trapped in a spiral of darkening sexual politics, setting the lovers on a path to doom. Winterbottom uses the chaos of emerging India as the perfect catalyst and parallel for the relationship between the two lovers. When the old world and 21st century world are tossed together so hurriedly, he seems to suggest, the result is not always so pretty.
Trishna is whisked out of her life of poverty by Jay, who allows her to rapidly climb the social ladder, to the point where she is hobnobbing with the filmy world of Mumbai (cue cameos by Anurag Kashyap, Kalki Koechlin and Amit Trivedi). Where the rustic romance was secretive, passionate and actually made them happy, living the city life openly and equally, sharing an apartment, makes Jay question if equality in their relationship could ever work. His gradual turn into an almost creepy, passive aggressive lover throws Trishna into recalculating her life and whether Jay can still be a part of it.
Her repeated decisions to cling on to him, despite being aware that their relationship is spiraling out of control, is hard to digest after a while. Trishna's passive attitude to everything he flings at her as he worsens diminishes any sort of an arc for her character. She's passive to begin with and stays that way through almost the entire film, until the tragic climax, which fails to be convincing after Winterbottom's standoffish treatment of the rest of the film.
Of the two leads, Ahmed's Jay is by far the more interesting character to follow. As a British-Indian foreigner to his own heritage, tourist in his ancestral land, Jay starts off with a fascinating complex. He can't speak Hindi while traveling around India and teeters on the awkward relationship between a modernizing ex-colony and the aging former colony. He's a part of both yet belongs to neither. And thus his story arc is triggered when he meets Trishna. She's the rooted, "pure" sense of belonging he needs. Ahmed plays Jay with relish, carefully inching towards his almost demonic transformation. He evokes that feeling of being deceived by someone who you thought you'd liked but now must loathe.
The title character, however, is a different story. With such a powerful author-backed title role, Freida Pinto could have done so much with the character of Trishna. Instead, she displays such placidity throughout the film that it's at once infuriating to watch and also diminishes any empathy towards the character. Part of the fault lies in the character and how it's written. She has few redeeming qualities and the bad decisions she makes repeatedly make it very difficult for a viewer to care much for her. Her passivity to what happens to her life is agitating and Pinto rarely injects much depth of emotion or reaction to what her character is going through.
While the story suffers, visually Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind capture the dichotomies of India with precision. The ancient, dusty, rooted scenes of Rajasthan are carefully contrasted with the frenetic pace and lifestyle of Mumbai. The imagery works, often telling more of the story than the characters themselves.
In Trishna, Winterbottom deals with sexual politics in a chaotic emerging country in a rather unsettling way. The parallels are significant and forceful message could probably be extracted from it. However, the lack of a protagonist that does more than move from one terrible decision to another without much care, detracts majorly from what could have been a compelling tale. The boisterous, robust and erratic pulse of a country cannot be depicted through its characters so apathetically. It just defeats the purpose.