Movie Review: Trishna (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s gratifying when a story that’s over a century old can be reset in modern times and still feel as fresh as when it was originally written. Given the heartbreaking nature of the source material, Trishna — a retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles — is all the more depressing because of its continued relevance.

British writer-director Michael Winterbottom sets Trishna in modern-day Rajastan. The beautiful title character, played by Frieda Pinto, is spotted working at a hotel by a British non-resident Indian named Jay (Riz Ahmed), who’s on a road trip with his friends. Jay’s wealthy father has sent his son to India to manage a luxury hotel. Jay would rather produce movies in Mumbai, using his father’s money, of course.

When Trishna and her father are injured in an accident that destroys her family’s jeep — their sole source of income — Jay hires Trishna to work at his family’s hotel in far-away Jaipur. She becomes her family’s breadwinner, but at a cost. One night, lecherous Jay takes advantage of her. Trishna flees home to an unexpectedly cold welcome: the family depends on the money she earns. This sends her right back into Jay’s clutches.

Hardy’s novel was printed with the subtitle: “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.” Trishna likewise presents a portrait of a complete person, and Pinto is portrays the character as she really is. As maddening as it is every time you wish Trishna would just run away, it’s clear that she can’t without sacrificing her family.

Country-girl Trishna’s minimal education limits her opportunities to earn money independently. Education becomes a theme as Trishna scolds the younger female members of her family to stay in school. Education is their only hope for a future away from their unsympathetic father. He delivers the cruelest blow of the film when he tells Trishna that the whole town knows she’s the family’s breadwinner, and not him. It’s an accusation, not a compliment, despite the fact that she’s just obeying his orders.

Jay is an amalgam of the characters Alec and Angel from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The combination produces a villain both entitled and flighty, growing more monstrous the more bored he gets, resentful of his own familial obligations. Given the time limitations of a movie, I thought the combination made sense and worked well.

What didn’t work for me was the choice to have co-producer Anurag Kashyap and his wife, actress Kalki Koechlin, appear in the film as themselves during scenes when Jay is in Mumbai trying to become a producer. The closing credits list their characters as “Anurag” and “Kalki” rather than “Himself” or “Herself,” so I suppose there’s room to argue that they’re just playing a director named Anurag and an actress named Kalki.

It’s a gimmick that will go unnoticed by people unfamiliar with Bollywood films, but their scenes stuck out like a sore thumb to me because Kalki is totally obnoxious in the film. She may have just been putting on an act, but if that’s the case, give her character a different name.

The problem is that Kalki Koechlin is one of my favorite actors. I don’t read gossip columns or actor interviews unless they’re specifically talking about their jobs. The less I know about actors personally, the more I can believe them as different characters. The lasting image I take away from Trishna — accurate or not — is that Kalki Koechlin seems like a jerk, and I don’t want to think that about her.

Again, I don’t know if it’s an accurate perception, but why does she have to appear in the film as herself? It is a mistake that taints an otherwise solid film.

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16 thoughts on “Movie Review: Trishna (2011)

  1. JustMeMike

    Thanks for the review. This is indeed a story that crosses the lines of time and remains relevant even in this modern age. Looking forward to seeing it and it will be my 4th film with Frieda – Slumdog Millionaire, Miral, 2011 – Planet of the Apes, and now this one.

    jmm

    Reply
  2. Jenny K

    Hmmm…this movie didn’t get to me as much as it seems to have, with you. I didn’t think it transferred from the Victorian Era to the modern era as easily as one wanted it to, and I kept finding myself saying, “really?” way too often. And I also wished that the director had included more scenes to show how the “hero” (who I sort of liked at the beginning of the movie) got to be rather Mickey Roarke in 9 1/2 Weeks-ish in that last Rajasthani segment. It seemed too extreme a transformation with the motivations the director showed us.

    However, I did think that the performances and the cinematography were very good. Frieda’s performance was the best one I’d seen her in so far. Nice thing about movie blogs is we don’t have to have the same viewpoints. The discussion is half the fun!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for the 9 1/2 Weeks reference, Jenny. I forgot to mention that this is definitely a movie for adults. Frieda really is good.

      Reply
  3. Jane

    Such great points, all! As a non Bollywood Film viewer, I indeed wondered who the hell this Kalcki Koechlin was, as I too found her unnerving. It took a little IMDB research to tell me that she seems to be a valid actor who has earned her chops through education, theatre, etc. So as you indicated, why play the obnoxious Diva if she’s playing herself. She did, if you remember, tell her director that “I AM a Diva” right after he told her her character was one. (Funny that this is what emerged from the union of her hippie-move-to-India parents! A Diva is perhaps the last thing they hoped for!)

    I also agree w/Jenny K insofar as the unrealistic transformation of Jay from a somewhat harmless gadabout to sadist.

    Ha ha, and what of his take on maintaining the hotel property b/c his brothers won’t do it, out of deference to their ailing father? Real good job of maintenance, Jay–staying horizontal the whole time!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jane! I’m glad I’m not the only one who found Kalki The Diva distracting. It’s a bummer of introduction for people like yourself who aren’t regular Bollywood movie watchers. Kalki really is good in dark films like “That Girl in Yellow Boots” and “Shanghai,” and as a crazy girlfriend in “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.”

      As for Jay’s transformation, I wonder if the director meant to show that Jay had become a substance abuser. Late in the film, Trishna brings him a bottle of champagne with his lunch every day, and Jay’s frequently shown smoking (weed, I assume). If that was the director’s intention, it could have been made more obvious.

      I was okay with Jay’s transformation into a monster as shown. He was already controlling — as seen in Mumbai when he wouldn’t let Trishna dance — and he becomes bored, drunk, and resentful. He feels trapped and wants to vent his frustration on someone, and who better than Trishna, who’s completely dependent upon him? But I would’ve trimmed the opening road-trip sequence in order to accommodate another scene explaining Jay’s transformation.

      Reply
  4. Jane Laurel

    Another thing this Westerner had to get used to was the dual references to the city as both Mumbai & Bombay, as this comes on the heels of we Westerners being trained NOT to call it Bombay anymore! Oh well what that told me is that old habits die hard amongst Indian nationals, just as they do everyone else.

    That said, as a Casting Director here in Los Angeles, I found the casting really inspired. Loved the use of actual dancers and actual “people” as Winterbottom discussed in his L.A. Weekly interview.

    Reply
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  7. Henrik

    I thought you retold the and analyzed the story nicely, but completely over-emphasized Koechlin’s part. I know some Bollywood and find Koechlin’s husband a way more interesting figure than her (as a movie business person, not as an actor only), but i think this film is all about Pinto and Ahmed and anybody else is far less important and far less to be talked about.

    Reply

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