If you sat down to watch Trishna, a modern-day adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles reset in contemporary India, and didn’t already know that it was directed by Michael Winterbottom, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Trishna has none of the finesse, charm, or nuance of Winterbottom’s better films about raging narcissists and the supporting characters who love them. That’s right, a film that is ostensibly about Trishna is in reality largely defined by the thudding obviousness of Winterbottom’s feeble class-warfare-minded social commentary. The one-note characterization of Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy and highly irresponsible young man from the rich part of Mumbai who marries working-class Ossian peasant Trishna (Freida Pinto), typifies the film’s weaknesses as both a social critique and a drama. Winterbottom’s latest is so alarmingly flat that it’s not even an ambitious failure like 9 Songs (2004): it’s just unremarkably bad. Which begs the following question: where did the idiosyncratic, calculating young artist go, who helmed both the hilarious Tristram Shandy (2005) and the provocative Code 46 (2003) and also co-directed with Mat Whitecross the rousing Road to Guantanamo (2006)?
In Trishna, class rules everything surrounding the titular heroine, a working-class girl who accepts Jay’s offer to work at his father’s hotel. The inequality inherent in this relationship is clumsily foreshadowed during the film’s introductory scenes with Jay, a self-absorbed young man who, when hanging out with his airhead friends, rides around in a car blasting a song with hateful lyrics like, “I’m the king and she’s my queen, bitch.” Apparently, Winterbottom thought that telling us through a song cue how being raised with a silver spoon in his mouth affected Jay’s character was a good thing, at one point.
Still, Jay unwittingly broadcasts his own insensitivity throughout the film, even as he gives Trishna a personal tour of the family’s hotel’s manor estate. Jay doesn’t even know how to thank the men that work on the grounds in their native tongue, but that’s presumably forgivable at this point since he’s still more sheepish and obnoxious than aggressive and obnoxious. That will gradually change, which is realistically where Trishna differs most with Hardy’s source novel. It takes Tess far less time to realize that she doesn’t like the smarmy and rich Alec. But in the beginning at least, Trishna willingly allows herself to be tempted by Jay’s offers of financial security for her family and herself.
The world of the rich is populated by louts of all stripes throughout Trishna. That kind of ham-fisted commentary is the last thing one would expect from Winterbottom, an artist who has over the last decade or so proven just how thoughtful his general understanding of the human condition can be. And yet even Jay’s father, a man who bemoans his son’s insensitivity and lack of business sense, is obnoxious. Jay’s father casually remarks that he can hear pheasants chirping. That casual display of knowledge is meant to drive us to him, especially since Jay petulantly protests that his father couldn’t possibly identify birds based only on their unique call. But ultimately, Jay’s dad is only endearing insofar as he’s the opposite of his son. He disappears from the film’s narrative and is never seen again. For that one scene, he serves as a human sandwich board, reflecting in big bold letters what is wrong with Jay’s character before those points are only further accentuated through his interactions with Trishna.
Speaking of which: boy, are this movie’s sexual politics guileless. How could the director of 9 Songs, a notoriously anti-romantic (but ambitious) drama that used graphic scenes of un-simulated sex to chart the gradual decline of a relationship, have made this film? Trishna has none of that earlier film’s sophistication. When Jay dominates Trishna in the bedroom, it’s obvious when his domination is a good thing and when it shows his callousness as a character. You always know exactly how you’re supposed to feel when you watch Trishna, making the film’s first 90 minutes a slow but blatant march towards an unenlightening over-the-top climax. In 9 Songs, Winterbottom tried to get viewers to examine and draw their own conclusions about the minute but telling gestures that define his two lovers. Where the hell did that Winterbottom go?
(Spoiler!) The most immediate example of this film’s weakness can be seen in the scene where Trishna confesses to Jay that she aborted their baby. The scene understandably goes on after Trishna, who at this point still loves and trusts Jay, tells what she did. But it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. Winterbottom conveys all of the malice the scene needs with the worried and increasingly distant expression on Ahmed’s face. And yet, the scene continues to accommodate and needlessly communicate Jay’s uncomprehending narcisissm: he’s upset with Trishna and wants her to know that she should have involved him in this important decision. Again, we know we’re supposed to come down on Trishna’s side because of the way that Winterbottom allows Jay to have the final say in this scene, dazedly berating Trishna about how hurt he is that she didn’t consult him. That kind of ceaseless chiding manipulates the viewer into wanting to tsk-tsk the bratty Jay for insisting that his needs supersede Trishna’s. But really, the only thing this scene proves is that an obnoxious character who was always obnoxious can get away with being obnoxious for a while because he has a hold over someone as impressionable and disadvantaged as Trishna. Because nothing is done to make Jay more sympathetic, there’s nothing more to Trishna than bad histrionics and self-righteous anger. Just as Godzilla fans call the 1998 American version GINO (Godzilla in Name Only), Trishna should henceforth be called Db-WINO: Directed by Winterbottom in Name Only.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.