Monday, April 30, 2012

Tribeca ’12: Trishna

Social class is a hard immutable fact of life in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Plunking the classic story down in contemporary America would be highly problematic, but India is a different matter.  Taking a few liberties here and there, Michael Winterbottom still captures the spirit of the original novel and its new setting in Trishna (trailer here), which screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, with further screenings coming up this week as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Jay will serve as both Trishna’s Angel and Alec.  Touring the off-the-beaten-path attractions of Rajasthan, his head is turned by Trishna, the primary provider for her large family.  The son of a British hotel mogul, Jay recruits the young woman for the resort he reluctantly manages.  Things are quite pleasant for Trishna, making considerably more than she ever could in her village, while Jay harmlessly pines for her. 

One night when her defenses are weakened, Trishna succumbs to Jay’s advances.  Instinctively realizing a Rubicon has been crossed, Trishna retreats, but Jay pursues, whisking her off to Mumbai, where they are socially accepted as a couple.  However, Trishna’s life and relationship will take a dark turn, paralleling Tess’s tragic history with men.

You never know what you’re going to get from Winterbottom, but he has emerged as the leading cinematic interpreter of Hardy’s novel, following up Jude and The Claim, very loosely based on the Mayor of Casterbridge.  He is clearly comfortable navigating the film’s sexually charged power dynamics, but Trishna also exhibits an affinity for India, even including musical montage sequences (with original songs composed by Amit Trivedi) that would not be out of place in high-end Bollywood cinema.

Winterbottom uses the subcontinent as a big canvas, covering a wide swath of geography, but his focus rarely strays from Frieda Pinto’s Trishna.  While some might find her maddeningly passive, she is a product of her environment.  Through Pinto’s haunted presence, viewers get a sense of the social and cultural weight crushing down on her.  Thanks to Winterbottom’s streamlining, Riz Ahmed’s Jay has to turn on a dime from leading man to a cruel exploiter.  Still, there are enough underlying consistencies in the impulsive, entitled persona he creates to maintain audience credibility.  Pinto and Ahmed really carry the dramatic load, but veteran character actor Roshan Seth (Chattar Lal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) has some memorable moments as Jay’s stern but humanistic father.

Granted, everyone should have a pretty good idea where Trishna is headed.  After all, Hardy is not exactly famous for his happy endings.  However, Winterbottom’s treatment of Tess is boldly cinematic.  (Incidentally, Polanski’s Tess will screen as a classics selection at this year’s Cannes, so cineastes might want to break out their Cliff Notes.)  Literate and absorbing, Trishna is recommended for anglophiles and fans of Hindi cinema, alike.  A strong selection of the recently wrapped 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, it screens Wednesday and Thursday (5/2 & 5/3) during this year’s San FranciscoInternational Film Festival.