From “Clueless” to “Cruel Intentions” to “Easy A,” high school has provided directors a quick setting to approximate the conservative mores of classic novels in the modern world. With “Trishna,” Michael Winterbottom happens upon an inspired alternative, relocating “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” to contempo India, where the Victorian attitudes of Thomas Hardy’s romantic tragedy still echo in a meaningful way today. Starring an incandescent Freida Pinto, “Trishna” acknowledges but doesn’t exactly embrace the Bollywood tradition, marrying Winterbottom’s naturalistic style with terrific songs by Amit Trivedi. Exotic result should attract extensive festival and specialty play.
As writer-directors go, Winterbottom has managed to sustain quite a career without repeating himself, largely by rejecting established genres and telling whichever stories catch his fancy. While “Trishna” marks the third time Winterbottom has found inspiration in Hardy’s novels, its style and approach couldn’t be more different than in the relatively straightforward “Jude” or “The Claim,” which recast “The Mayor of Casterbridge” in the Old West.
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The helmer has discovered in Hardy an artist devoted to capturing a critical turning point between the old ways and modern city life, recognizing that the same upheaval that struck Wessex toward the end of the 19th century has been repeated elsewhere in the world at different times. By expanding on that idea, “Trishna” reps the best kind of adaptation, one that worries less about faithfully rehashing the plot of an earlier literary work than really engaging with its most important themes.
Here, the lovely heroine is born at a disadvantage, the eldest daughter of a poor rural family living at a time when other Indians are moving to cities and growing rich on the opportunities they find there. The television offers a taste of fantasy, thanks to corny musical melodramas whose dance moves Trishna tries at home, but duty comes first. After her father is badly injured in a Jeep accident, Trishna accepts the invitation of a handsome stranger — a big-eyed college boy named Jay Singh (“Four Lions'” Riz Ahmed), a composite of Tess’ two suitors from the book — to work for a fancy tourist hotel owned by his benevolent, blind father (Roshan Seth).
Class gives Jay the upper hand. His father’s success in industry offers him the luxury of doing what he likes with his life; by contrast, Trishna’s entire family depends on the generous wage she earns in town. This fundamental inequity, compounded by the way a society that still practices arranged marriage treats the genders differently, lies at the heart of this admirable young lady’s tragedy. She finds herself at Jay’s mercy, permanently disgraced after he seduces her one evening.
Until this point, roughly an hour into the film, “Trishna” is demure enough to not ruffle the feathers of even an Indian film censor. However, with the character’s illicit pregnancy and subsequent abortion, the film acquires an edgy contempo feel. The language grows coarser, the sexuality becomes more brazen and the overall style integrates elements associated with Bollywood cinema — including one full-blown dance number Trishna sees when visiting a Mumbai film set.
By combining the Angel and Alec characters from the book, Winterbottom has created an intriguing new possibility, one in which Trishna could conceivably choose independent success (an option unavailable to Hardy’s heroine). Reuniting with Jay, Trishna follows him to Mumbai, where he is dabbling in the local film industry. Pinto, who looks so forlorn for much of the movie, comes alive in the presence of music. In settling for an increasingly imbalanced love affair with the wrong man, the true passion she’s denying is one for dance — which, given her newfound film biz connections, could launch her as a Bollywood star.
Though Jay blocks this plan, Winterbottom never quite convinces that the character is cruel enough to deserve the fate that awaits him, and the latter third of “Trishna’s” tale feels heavy-handed in its attempts to orchestrate the desired emotional response. Sudden and brutal, the tragic story’s climactic murder achieves what the helmer failed to do in “The Killer Inside Me,” shocking auds through sheer intensity (and proving that perhaps the strategy wasn’t as misogynistic as Winterbottom’s critics first assumed).
Marcel Zyskind’s widescreen HD lensing may not be the ideal resolution for a megaplex screen, but proves more than adequate to capture the production’s vivid costumes and colors, presented as a dizzying blend of narrative shots and atmospheric cutaways. Winterbottom’s quick-cut style is neither Hollywood nor Bollywood, but distinctly his own. Even the music, which mixes Trivedi’s songs with a beautiful original score by Shigeru Umebayashi (composer for Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou), reinforces the helmer’s unique approach to the material.