Trishna

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Trishna opens with a quartet of well-to-do British Asian guys, all in their 20s and currently stoned to varying degrees, rating the places they’ve just visited on their India trip.  As their holidays end, they twice cross paths with the 19-year-old Trishna (Freida Pinto) and one of them, Jay (British-Pakistani-Indian actor and rapper Riz Ahmed) finds himself absorbed by her beauty.  He remains behind in Rajasthan to manage one of his father’s hotels, as his three mates depart.

When Trishna’s father falls asleep at the wheel of his truck and they’re both injured, Jay comes to the rescue, offering Trishna work at the hotel, many miles from her family.  Like it or not, they have no other option and so Trishna sets off alone, her face a mix of resolve and determination, as she carries the weight of being their only provider on her young shoulders.

In the briefest series of establishing shots, Michael Winterbottom telegraphs what both Trishna and Jay’s lives are like, at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.  I always hold my breath a little when I see a fellow firang going about telling a story set in India, ever aware of the kind of criticism that will rain down on him or her from the Subcontinent, should he hit a false note.  And when I saw one of the trailers for Trishna a long time ago, the glimpse of a peacock and another shot of Rajasthani dancers gave me pause, and I feared the film might do the most dreaded: exotify.

But upon seeing Trishna for the first time several weeks ago, I realized I could relax.  That peacock and a few camels are only glimpsed briefly, and they’re gone.  Whether the scenes are taking place in rural Osian or the cosmopolis that is Mumbai, we’re seeing 21st century India, and the sometimes surprising contrasts that coexist (Trishna milks goats and pats out dung cakes with her mother, but also has a mobile phone and dances along to filmi song clips on TV).  Moreover, then I remembered that it was Michael Winterbottom who made A Mighty Heart, which was set in Pakistan and filmed in India, and was just fine.

Never having read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, nor seen Polanski’s Tess, I went in to this film blank and with no set expectations.  From the press notes, I did learn that Winterbottom chose to combine the two male protagonists into one (Jay).

The first act is quite seductive, from the first glimpses of Trishna, joining some dancers as they perform, her face open and ethereal, seemingly unaware of the impact her looks are having on the young hotelier.  Jay receives her at the bus station after she has left home, and as she sits behind him on his motorbike and they weave in and out of traffic and then up less crowded roads to the hotel, this gorgeous, languid music by Shigeru Umebayashi accompanies them, setting the stage for the growing attraction between the two, as they sit so close but not touching.

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Trishna grows more confident living and working on her own, and Jay encourages her to develop further, sending her to classes, while also initiating the practice of having her serve him lunch daily in his room.  For someone in charge of a hotel, Jay seems to do quite a bit of lounging around and reading.

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The action shifts when, after rescuing Trishna in town late one night from some men who were following her, something occurs between them on the way home – either consensual or forced – and she flees, in tears, the next day, and returns to Osian, from where she’s soon dispatched by her still convalescing father to work for an uncle in another town.  Jay eventually finds her and convinces rather easily to join him in Mumbai, where he is now dabbling at being a film producer.

The size and anonymity of the city allow the pair to live together without any of the judgement or opposition that would happen back in Rajasthan and for a while things seem quite good for them, with the couple exuding that lost-in-our-own bubble vibe that new lovers do, though there is a recurring issue of Trishna learning dance (as in, the kind you see in Hindi movies), but which Jay seems to oppose, telling friends – unconvincingly – that even she herself does not wish to dance professionally.  Anurag Kashyap, Kalki Koechlin, Amit Trivedi and even Ganesh Acharya all do a turn as a version of themselves, inhabiting the film world to which Jay’s family money has given him entrée.

Jay’s father (played by Roshan Seth, and who does a brief, delightful turn earlier in the film) has a stroke back home in England and Jay must depart, to spend a considerable time there.  In his final hours with Trishna before he leaves, when certain secrets are revealed, an irreparable tear occurs in the fabric between them.

In Jay’s absence, Trishna faces more challenges, trying to make her way alone in Mumbai, but as always, she finds a way to cope and endure.  When Jay does eventually return, the third act of the film devolves into a strange and horrible reversed repeat of the first act.  Jay is forced to return to the hotel business in Rajasthan, except this time to a more desolate and desperate property, with none of the warmth or atmosphere of the first hotel.  Trishna accompanies Jay, but only after agreeing to the emotional equivalent of a demotion and a pay cut, and what plays out in their final days and weeks together becomes an exercise in how low he can debase Trishna in each subsequent sexual encounter.  To that end, Michael Winterbottom does the unimaginable, and manages to actually film Freida Pinto in such a way as to render her temporarily ugly, which is quite a feat, given who he’s working with.  I thought it interesting too that, while Trishna goes through the entire film with her head bare, upon her return to Rajasthan, in the final scenes we see her for the first time ever covering her head, as if she not only has taken so many steps backward to become again who she was before, Trishna actually bypasses that point, and regresses even further into some identity in a rural, patriarchy that was never hers before.

See it or skip it?

See it, absolutely! It’s a beautifully rendered telling of two people approaching each other from so many opposites – male-female, rich-poor, urban-rural – that you’d have to be an extreme optimist to think they could buck the odds and make a go of it in India.  Aside from the two compelling lead actors, the supporting cast in Rajasthan are all solid and so very natural (many are non-actors).

In the beginning, Winterbottom makes you feel the sensations of a love and desire growing, just as Trishna and Jay experience it, complete with some lyrical, deeply felt music by Amit Trivedi, Shigeru Umebayashi, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which serves as a beautiful skeleton, if you will, that holds the body of the film together.  It boggles the mind to think that this soundtrack has still – to date – not been released yet.  Supposedly it’s coming next month.  I’ll believe it when it happens.

Mita Vashisht – whom you may remember as Manisha Koirala’s partner-in-terrorism in Dil Se – here is Trisna’s mother and she expresses so much more with her eyes and her body than with her words, just as Freida does.  The filmi scenes in Bombay were alright, though some of Kalki Koechlin’s dialogue felt a little stage-y.

Ultimately, it’s a dark film, all the more sad after the gorgeous promise of the start of Trishna and Jay’s affair, but I appreciated the ending and Trishna’s ultimate act, as a victory of sorts, where she got to exercise her choice, within the circumstances in which she found herself.

Trishna is now in theaters around the US and also available in some areas on demand.

Le Tamoul – for a change!

When recently directing a friend who was in Paris to the website for L’Harmattan bookstore there, and their amazing selection of Francophone African literature, and all variety of “international books,” I couldn’t help but notice a brief paragraph on the page promoting an upcoming salon about Indian writing (in November) this year.

Wonderful, of course, but what really caught my eye was this little image:

Lindes%20des%20livres Le Tamoul   for a change!

I thought it interesting to see that – for a change – they had gotten away from the usual faux-Devanagri lettering so many people use for shop signs, restaurant menus, and which I also considered briefly back at the dawn of this site, and the designer/artist/blogger had instead done an adaptation of Le Tamoul script, which I think is kinda’ cute.

The little man in the big turban?  Hmmm….. I leave that one to you, dear reader….

 

Signs of Political Animals in NYC

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Last week ads for the USA Network‘s summer mini-series Political Animals started appearing around Manhattan.

The six-part series stars Sigourney Weaver and (Belfast-born)  Ciáran Hinds as the ersatz Hillary and Bill, here known as Elaine Barrish Hammond and Bud Hammond.

Also part of the cast – and in a role that looks like good fun – is Ellen Burstyn as the opinionated mother of the Secretary of State, Margaret Barrish.

Political%20Animals%20partial%202 Signs of Political Animals in NYC

Sadly, so far all of the short cast promos the USA Network has been running feature everyone but Ciáran Hinds, which is a pity because even if audiences don’t recognize his name, they will know his face, given his work in so many movies, both mainstream and independent.

Bol Bachchan

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This sure is turning out to be a season of movies set in Rajasthan (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Trishna, and now Bol Bachchan).  Who can blame them – what with the havelis and camels and colorful turbans and such.  And boy, does Bol Bachchan have colors all over – practically every shot is a swirl of yellows, oranges, greens and reds, and sun, sun, sun everywhere.

With a story line that veers and twists all over the place, let’s just leave it at this: AB 2.0 and Asin play a brother and sister (Abbas and Sania Ali) who exit Delhi after losing a court case and their right to family property.  Upon arriving in Ranakpur, Abbas breaks open the cobwebbed lock on an unused temple in order to save a child who’s fallen into a tank of water.  In a moment of panic – and to prevent the supposed communal unrest that would result if the townspeople came to learn that a Muslim had broken into a Hindu temple – a family friend lies and says that Abbas’ name is Abhishek Bachchan, which rapidly snowballs into a series of mix-ups and more lies, most of which occur so as to avoid the wrath of the truth-loving and hyper-muscled pehlawan and local leader Prithviraj (Ajay Devgan), he of the always epauletted kurta (seriously, he has one in every color).

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One part of this charade involves Abhi (Abhishek) having to create and play the part of his own twin brother, the fey and fawning (and oh-so-gay-tonight) Abbas, whom Prithvi hires to be a dance instructor for his over-protected sister Radhika (Prachi Desai).  As Abbas sashays around, waving his limp wrists to and fro, he succeeds in charming his pupil and also awakening the suspicions of one of Prithvi’s long-serving managers.

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And this is where I had a problem.  On the one hand, as someone who finds this Bachchan bachcha extremely aesthetically pleasing, I’m happy to watch his leggy, slightly meatier self caper around doing practically anything on screen, and even though I feel like a bad girl for saying this, I was amused by Gay Abhi’s signature “Na dhin dhinna” head and hand gesture (picture a man-loving, North Indian equivalent of Joey Tribbiani on Friends and his classic “How you doin’?” greeting).

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But, as I watched the floral-shirted (cue Shut Up and Bounce) Abbas put through his paces, auditioning while accompanied by a canon of the past year’s filmi song hits, I couldn’t help but keep thinking “Really?  Yet another super-swishy gay character for us to laugh at?”  It saddens me that even in 2012, and with all the hoopla in the past couple of years about how wonderful the Hindi film industry has become again and all the tie-ups with multinationals, etc etc, even still, the cheapest, quickest way too many of Mumbai’s film people will reach for a laugh (think Boman Irani & Ritesh Deshmukh at last year’s IIFAs or on Koffee with Karan, and Shreyas Talpade & his cohost on the BIG Star Entertainment awards) is to have one man, or more, pretend he’s a homosexual.  And just in case you might miss that, better be safe and make sure Girlfriend is writ so large, you could see her being sassy from outer space.

That was my reaction on Thursday night, while watching the film.  On Friday, I started to think “Well, maybe it’s not the thought of the character actually being gay that director Rohit Shetty wants us to laugh at, maybe it’s the ham-fistedness of the heterosexual character in his clueless attempt to pretend he’s gay that’s supposed to be funny.”  I sure hope it’s the latter… and that the same thought has flashed through the grey matter of the audiences who’ve plonked down all that money yesterday and today, but I have my doubts.

In a film directed by and starring three industry sons (one – Ajay Devgan – is also a producer), you wouldn’t be far off if you were expecting a lot of filmi references, and there are oodles, beginning with the flashy title song, harkening back to Amar, Akbar, Anthony, except now the former Anthony Gonsalves’ ride egg has been pimped up to a Fabergé.  It’s a goofy, silly song (and that nasal “Pennnnndolllummmm!”), but, just as I’m helpless before the son, so too am I before the pater familias – even with his many jibes at people from my part of the world – and I watch him doing his trademark Amitabh horizontally-wavy-quasi-hula-girl-hands dance move, sandwiched between dozens of lovelies young enough to be his granddaughters, thinking “Bless his heart; look at him go!  Still a charmer.”

In addition to the Bachchan incense that wafts throughout (references to his films, a sampling of his voice used as a sound effect, Abhi repeatedly beginning sentences with “Mere Pita-ji kehte hai ki…”), there are also in-jokes (says the manager of a theater troupe: “This always happens in our line, one becomes a producer and he wants to make changes.”) and Shetty continues the homage, shall we call it, to Southern flics in the fight scenes where the hero administers one punch to a group of 10 men surrounding him, and poof, they all fly outward in slo-mo like a chrysanthemum firework, and car chases will inevitably lead to trucks and buses hopscotching over one another (cue Nick Lowe).

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With a movie running to some 2.5 hours, the action sequences are where (surprise, surprise) I would have trimmed considerably.  Do we really need yet another film (ya Hindi ya Tamil) where a bus or car skids off over the edge of some hill/mountain/etc and leaves us locked into – literally – a (minium) 10-minute cliffhanger, where we have no doubt as  to what the outcome will be?

But I’m just a female, what do I know?

Which brings me to something else – the women in this film!  First, Asin Thottumkal and Prachi Desai are excess ornaments, barely considered in this manly lovefest, which is a pity, because both have done more in their respective pasts.  But that doesn’t surprise me so much, given how hero-oriented the industry is.

What really got my dander up was the treatment of Archana Puran Singh’s character, whom Abhishek sees performing a mujra and tries to convince to play the part of his mother so he can fool Prithvi.  When we see her on stage, speaking in rhyme about love and longing, the all-male audience howl with laughter and ridicule at the idea of someone her age having romantic or (hold on to your petticoats) sexual feelings, which becomes a running joke throughout the film.

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It was one thing when we tittered at APS as the flirty Miss Braganza in KKHH, but here, it’s just plain nasty, as she’s portrayed as this comical, grasping, pathetic figure who still wants to be in the game, but doesn’t realize what a foolish notion that is for someone of her clearly advanced decrepitude.  (Good Heavens, the poor dear is all of what, 40-something?)  As with attitudes toward gay people, I guess it will take the Hindi film industry a good while to actually accept that ladies above 35 are more than either sexless Maas or frustrated cougars.  In the US, it took us a decade to get from the hypocrisy of Jack Nicholson’s character being aghast at Kathy Bates nudity as she joined him in the hot tub in About Schmidt, to get to two-timing, doobie-puffing Meryl Streep having a good laugh with her girlfriends over her fling with her slimy ex- in It’s Complicated.

See it or skip it?

If not for those two major objections, I might have said “Meh, why not?  It’s ok as a summer flic, with some funny lines and plays on language, and there’s Abhishek Bachchan”, but I just can’t recommend spending money to reward such a stereotypical gay portrayal, even if it is just a summer movie.

Think back to one year ago (Delhi Belly, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), and consider what an embarrassment of riches that was compared to this.