In a way, British moviemaker Michael Winter Bottom is no stranger to India, rather to the Indian subcontinent. His films like Code 46 and A Mighty Heart were set in India, though as the director said at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where his latest work, the Frieda Pinto starrer, Trishna, screened, the country doubled for another. A Mighty Heart, for instance, on the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, actually unfolds in Pakistan, but was shot in India.
In an interview, Winterbottom said that it would be incorrect for to him to say that he knows India. "I am completely ignorant of it".
Trishna happens in contemporary India, about 120 years after Hardy captured the life of a simple, pure village lass as it dramatically changes when she meets two men, one spiritual and the other sensual.
However, the fact that Winterbottom chose to set his movie in present times seems to be his biggest undoing. To begin with, contrary to what one might want to believe, the Indian woman, even in some of the nation’s most backward regions, is not docile and subdued as Tess was – and as Winterbottom’s heroine, Trishna, is. It would be farfetched to imagine that the Indian woman is shackled by some of the compulsions that Tess faced, that the helmer transfers to Trishna.
Herein where Trishna stumbles.
In an abridged and altered version of the Hardy fiction, Winterbottom introduces us to the wealthy son, Jay (Riz Ahmed), of a blind hotelier (Roshan Seth), who comes to India from Britain to explore business possibilities. During one of his travels, he meets Trishna (Frieda Pinto), who works as a maid in a hotel. When her father’s jeep, that helps her family earn its livelihood, is damaged in an accident, Jay offers an educated Trishna a job in one of his father’s luxury hotels.
Jay combines in him the two men in Hardy’s literary work, Alec and Angel, and unlike the original, Winterbottom’s hero is largely noble – a fact that bewildered me about Trishna’s final act of destruction. It was equally hard to accept that an educated woman, even if she were to be living away from India’s hep cities like Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore, could be as ruthlessly enslaved as Trishna is.
What is more, she had chances, and enough, to have freed herself from what Winterbottom purports to be a slavery of sorts, sexual certainly, accentuated by the wide economic disparity between Jay and Trishna. Even one were to consider Trishna’s advantage in a relationship with Jay – that will help her impoverished family better their living prospects – she had, as would any Indian woman today, avenues other than the one she so tragically chooses.
Well, Winterbottom surely does not understand India, and like very many Westerners, has opted to see the country through a rather blinkered, jaundiced view. It is all very easy to perceive the nation of 1.2 billion people as miserably backward and where women, outside the cities and towns, are submissive to the point of slavishness.
Equally hard-to-digest is the way Winterbottom presents the relationship between Trishna and her immediate family, father, mother and siblings. In a State like Rajasthan where virginity is invariably equated with family honour, Trishna’s folks appear as calm as a British household would when they find their unmarried daughter pregnant. Winterbottom shows Trishna going through an abortion (after a sexual encounter with Jay, not quite rape as in the novel) at a clinic with her parents are in calm attendance. The only sign of familial displeasure is seen in the father (who refuses to talk to Trishna after the incident). There is not even a trace of sorrow or anger in her mother!
The truth is very different, and Winterbottom seems quite oblivious of Indian society, where the family plays a vital role in especially a young girl’s life.
Beyond the actual story itself, Riz and Pinto are boringly limited in their expressiveness. (What a contrast to Jude, where Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston breathe raw passion into their roles.) Often both seem so wooden that the final tragedy comes as a complete shock. If Trishna was so livid at the caddish way Jay treats her, there really are no signs. And if Jay was all that callous and brutal (seen in perhaps just about one sexual act), the man on the screen, again, does not reveal that.
Was it just rank bad performances or was it clearly lack of understanding on the part of the Trishna team that translate into a set of images which fails to convince.
More on the lines of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (which celebrates Indian poverty), Trishna comes from a man who once gave the brilliant Welcome to Sarajevo. In my opinion, he is yet to better that.