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Trishna puts Tess in Rajasthan

Photograph of Freida Pinto as Trishna in Michael Winterbottom's film

Freida Pinto as Trishna

Trishna unfolds with exquisite inevitability

Film captures the dark side of the changes taking place in India

His voice was filled with exasperation, and the churned-up emotion of watching tragedy unfold before him, onscreen. “Didn’t she realize she had the upper hand,” he asked. “He kept coming back to her. Why didn’t she take control of the relationship?”

He was a white Canadian, a “gora,” who had — like me — just sat through the premiere of Trishna at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and set in modern-day India, was directed by Michael Winterbottom (Jude). It stars Freida Pinto (Slumdog Milionaire) and Riz Ahmed as the doomed lovers swept up in the tumult of a changing society. The decision to set the story in modern India was brilliant, and gave the film multi-layered depth, the sheen of reality and the depth of pathos.

Photograoh of director Michael Winterbottom and Freida Pinto at Trishna premiere, TIFF 2011

Director Michael Winterbottom and Freida Pinto

As Winterbottom explained during the introduction to the film, India is experiencing the kind of seismic societal changes that England saw at the height of the industrial revolution, when Tess was written. And those changes are what drive the story. Trishna is a simple girl from a traditional Rajasthan family who, because of her beauty, attracts the attention of a wealthy young, Indo-British man — in India to help his father run his luxury hotel business.

She has never been out of her village; he doesn’t speak Hindi. But they meet and a relationship seems almost plausible, however unlikely, given their wildly different backgrounds and social classes. And for awhile, when they are in modern-age Bombay, it almost works. But when they return to much-more traditional Rajasthan, and their stations as owner-servant, the relationship descends into darkness, dysfunction, torture. And then the movie grinds inevitably toward tragedy. In truth, I wanted to run out of the theatre when I saw the searing psychological truth the film was willing to portray. It’s hard to watch, hard to look away.

And hard to accept. Hence the exasperation in the man’s voice during the question-and-answer session afterwards.

The raw truth, magnified

Photograph of Freida Pinto from Trishna premiere at TIFF 2011

Freida Pinto at TIFF premiere

If Trishna was able to suddenly become a modern, “empowered” woman and take control of the situation and the relationship, there would be no story. The man’s question revealed both his lack of knowledge and understanding about the role of women in a traditional society, like rural Rajasthan; and a disregard for the pathos of tragedy, and the psychological truths and manifestations of character that drive the story, along with the circumstances.

Yet his question seemed particularly pertinent to me; it became another layer of the film; another spoke in the wheel of change. His question reminded me that I feel part of this story too — that I am a modern, western woman who travels in India; who has spent time in Rajasthan and Bombay; who has had relationships in India; and who has experienced the changing Indian society depicted in the film, though to a lesser degree — and thankfully to a much less tragic end!

In other words, the film rings true, despite its tragic and melodramatic story arc. And the excellence of the production adds to that truth — especially Freida Pinto’s acting. She is luminous. Her vulnerability is raw, and rare, and very moving.

I will feel differently next time I am in India, and especially in Rajasthan. I will see women differently. That is what this film has accomplished. It has magnified reality to bring it into focus.

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4 Responses to Trishna puts Tess in Rajasthan

  1. Rashmie @ MommyLabs September 15, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    Hi Mariellen,
    I have been reading your posts on and off including the Film Festival coverage etc. But this was one post that made me read every word and implored me to share my thoughts.

    Your review is so insightful and your effort to understand the nuances of the changing Indian societal paradigm – so genuine, I felt like you were talking to me – a deep conversation.

    I am from Rajasthan myself – Jodhpur actually and I have seen the urban and the rural settings, the family structure, the role of women from close quarters. Especially due to my mom’s life story – her child marriage, the responsibilities galore and the repercussion of an early marriage. I can talk about it and write about it as if it were an epic!

    Need to watch this movie for sure. I hope it releases in India soon.
    BTW, do you watch this TV series – Balika Vadhu on ‘colours’ channel? Its portrayal of rural Rajasthan and its women folk is a real good effort.

  2. Mariellen September 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Wow, Rashmie, thanks so much for your heart-felt comment and also for sharing from your life story and your Mother’s. I would love to read more about the changes you have seen, through the story of your family! I hope you write it.

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