Movie review: Trishna - putting the ‘melo’ back in ‘drama’

Spoiler alert.

Noman Ansari July 25, 2012

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the highly somber melodrama, Trishna, is a British production loosely based on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a novel written by celebrated English writer Thomas Hardy. I say loosely, because while Hardy’s literary heavyweight was based in England during the late 1800s, Trishna is an adaptation that takes place in modern day India.

This change in venue works because the theme of ‘being sexually free against social norms’ is just as relevant in both settings.

What also works is Trishna’s honest view of a Rajahstani woman from an impoverished background, tragically caught in the fast moving sandstorm of India’s modernising culture.

Things start in the traditional society of Rajasthan with Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), a part English part Indian businessman, touring the rural sections of the city with his mates. While exploring some tourist-friendly temples, he meets a young woman named Trishna (Freida Pinto). Jay, who can’t speak a word of Hindi, is immediately attracted to the innocent allure of Trishna, much to the bemusement of his friends.

After Trishna’s father gets into an accident that destroys his Jeep and results in minor injuries to herself, Jay offers her a job in his father’s hotel in the main city. The Rs2,500 salary on offer is fairly sizable given ’s family circumstances, and she takes the job with her father’s blessing. When she arrives in the city, she is received at the train station by Jay himself, and their courtship begins with moments that are sweet, yet also uncomfortable. The sweetness in their courtship comes from Trishna’s tale of discovery, while the discomfort stems from the contrasting values of both lovers.

Jay, who is shown to begrudgingly take charge of the family’s hotel business, comes from a society where couples living together and being sexually active is acceptable, whereas the opposite is true for Trishna. This is exemplified after the couple’s first sexual encounter, when Trishna is left sobbing with what we can assume to be feelings of overflowing guilt.

Circumstances improve when the couple moves to a more modern city in India, where their lifestyle is free from the shackles of conventional cultural norms. Here, Trishna starts studying hotel management while also following her passion to dance. Unfortunately, their bliss doesn’t last, and the couple is forced to return to Rajasthan, where they must keep their relationship a secret once again.

In this final act, Trishna takes an absolute turn for the bizarre. Unconvincingly, the tale turns to themes of sexual dominance, rape, murder and suicide. Perhaps Michael Winterbottom (who has adapted a Thomas Hardy novel into a film thrice) was trying too hard to reference the book, but the film’s turn to the dark side is almost laughable in how unpersuasive it is. One can even say that Trishna’s attempts at drama are, well, overly melodramatic.

That being said, Trishna is beautifully shot with vivid cinematography of a rapidly evolving nation. The performances are quite commendable, with Pinto particularly good at displaying the stark naivety of her character. Ultimately though, Trishna does stumble clumsily in its final act, which rather than drawing sorrow, evokes bemusement. That in itself is the film’s greatest tragedy.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 22nd, 2012.

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