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.

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.

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.

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