In Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna," Thomas Hardy's Victorian romantic tragedy "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" proves surprisingly adaptable to contemporary India. Freida Pinto plays Trishna, the eldest daughter of a poor rural family in Rajasthan, who is romanced by Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy son of a property developer. As is true of so many dramas played out against the Indian backdrop, these people are both singular and archetypal.
Trishna represents a younger generation that has been moving into the cities for greater freedoms while still tied to tradition. Jay, who doesn't want to manage his father's properties and is lured to Mumbai and the Bollywood swirl, is split between modernity and a kind of neocolonialist hauteur. Although he is smitten by Trishna, whom he first glimpses working in one of his father's hotels, he takes it as a given that she is subservient to him. His love for her has its sharp demarcations. And because Trishna, both innately and through her station in life, is extraordinarily passive with Jay, she has no real say in what happens to her (until the end).
The tragedy of "Trishna," written and directed by Winterbottom, is that these young lovers, in an idealized setting, would be the perfect couple. Instead, the story plays itself out with a dreadful inevitability. We know, even without any familiarity with Hardy's book, where all this is heading. Trishna's fate has a sacrificial grandeur, and a sacrificial horror, because she embodies so much more than herself.
Jay is a melding of two of Tess's suitors in Hardy's book, one who stands in for the spiritual, the other for the sensual. His progress from devotional lover to cruel master is perhaps too abrupt, but it's not emotionally unbelievable. We can look back at Jay during his courtship days and see hints even then that Trishna would end up degraded. When, about halfway through, she runs off with him to Mumbai and joins up with a smart set of Bollywood actors and producers, Jay forbids her to dance in the movies – even though she comes alive whenever she dances and is easily the most beautiful woman in her circle.
Although Jay's friends appear to accept Trishna as one of their own, he doesn't really feel that way. The fact that he loves her changes nothing.
When they move outside Mumbai, their relationship must once again become secret. He is the overseer of a resort; she is a chambermaid (except behind closed doors – and then she is his concubine). It's as if Cinderella had been delivered back into misery.
Because of her picture-perfect prettiness, Pinto has an opacity that has sometimes seemed indistinguishable from blankness. Here, though, that aspect works in her favor. Trishna is a mystery to us, to Jay, perhaps even to herself. Winterbottom uses Pinto's closed-off quality for its shades of ambiguity. When she dances and her face lights up, the submerged joyousness comes bursting through; and we can see the kind of person she might be but for poverty and a turn of the fates. The pity is that Jay doesn't see it, too.
Winterbottom uses the Indian locations with a documentarian's eye and a dramatist's mind. This teeming universe is not the neatly apportioned India of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The India of "Trishna," with its mythos and modernism, is, in a sense, the film's central protagonist. Trishna and Jay are at its mercy. Grade: A- Rated R for sexuality, some violence, drug use, and language.