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.