The preview screening I attended of Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna started with the film out of frame for the first few minutes. The bottom portion of the picture was cut off and appeared the above the screen. That is a good metaphor for the movie itself. It just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be; or maybe, it tries to be too many things and loses its focus in the process.
An affluent British heir, Jay (Riz Ahmed), hires the poor, rural Trishna (Freida Pinto) to work at one of his father’s hotels. They fall in love, but societal and personal issues prevent this love story from allowing Trishna’s life to evolve from rags to riches. Trishna is a unique adaptation of the British novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This film transfers the class issues of 19th century England to present day India, changing the title character’s name from Tess to Trishna. By updating the time period to modern times, it perspicaciously supplants the location from England during Imperialism to India’s current disparity between poverty and wealth.
However, another change to the story makes this film a poor adaptation or its original text. In the novel, Tess chooses between two lovers. Neither gives her what he ultimately needs, but both men represent different possibilities for her. The choices that she and these men make lead to the novel’s tragic ending. In this film, the two men are composited together in an attempt to simplify the story. It becomes a question of whether the lead character should do whatever this one man says to get out of her lower class life. This change removes the weight of her choices. Instead of having options, it feels as if she is following this one man until she has finally had enough and takes the action that leads to the film’s tragic ending.
As a UK production in India, the movie never feels like it is fully immersed in the culture but only using India as its backdrop. It uses the filmi music, but in a very Western sense. The dance scenes are shown, but never as a part of the story telling, always in the background or as something that the characters are watching. A full song is never presented, as it would in a Bollywood feature. Instead, it is cut up and used the way pop music is used in a Hollywood film. And the rest of the score is a traditional, classical Western score. It has its emotional swells, but feels out of place.
The overall production comes across with an aloof feeling, as if no one decided what kind of movie this should be. It borrows aspects of Bollywood but presents everything is a very standard Hollywood style. Even the story seems to drift between romance and tragedy without choosing one until it nears its conclusion. The fatal ending, which should carry the conviction of its characters, carries a passive sadness but lacks a certain level of empathy.