From an outside, idealistic perspective, India seems like the perfect place for romance. It has a rich and ancient culture, with a mythology as colorful as its people and costumes. In the cinema, the country has become known for ornate dramas and sweeping love stories full of song and dance. Trishna, the latest film from writer/director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People), has all the makings of a romantic epic. However, this is a rags to riches tale gone horribly wrong. It begins as a sort of Disney princess story, but it keeps the camera rolling to see if there really is such a thing as “happily ever after.” In this case, there isn’t.
The sprawling story of the title character (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s beautiful heroine Freida Pinto) begins in Trishna’s hometown in a rural village in Rajasthan, the largest state in India. She is a proper young woman of 19, the eldest daughter of a large family. She even addresses people as “sir.” Trishna’s life changes forever when she meets a handsome young man named Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), the son of a wealthy hotel tycoon who is instantly taken by her.
It seems like just a chance meeting, but one day Trishna’s father, who struggles with alcoholism, falls asleep at the wheel and crashes his truck, full of cargo and Trishna in tow. The accident leaves both alive but injured. Trishna has a broken arm, but what’s worse is that her father is unable to work, leaving the already poor family in dire financial straits. Luckily Jay, unable to shake his feelings for Trishna, returns to her home and learns of her woeful story. He offers her a job at his father’s hotel in Jaipur, capitol of Rajasthan, where Jay finally expresses his desire for Trishna. But after their first night together, the shame she feels is too great and she immediately returns home.
It’s the stops and starts in their budding romance that creates wonderful conflict. Jay seems supportive of Trishna and appears to really want her to excel. He enrolls her in college classes in hotel management so she can possibly better her station, but as the film goes on, it seems that all of this generosity comes with strings attached. As selflessness sours into selfishness, so does their story spiral into tragedy.
What’s really at work here is the anything’s possible ethos of modern day, cosmopolitan life butting heads with staunch tradition. Eventually Trishna and Jay meet again. After her abortion leads to exile from her family’s home, she begins working in a factory–the cushy life at the hotel in Jaipur seems miles away. Once again, Jay returns and brings her to Mumbai, where living together as an unmarried couple isn’t frowned upon. Love between the two really blossoms. They are free from antiquated ideas of class and propriety. Still, old values creep in: Trishna, for example, has always loved dancing, and the couple’s artistic friends urge her to pursue it further; however, Jay is resistant to his girlfriend dancing professionally, and in the end, much in the way she seems to follow Jay anywhere, Trishna cedes to his wishes.
Otherwise, things are fine until a family situation forces Jay to return to the hotel business. The couple leaves the liberal city behind once again for Rajasthan. There, steeped in old traditions, Jay becomes more like a lustful sultan than a loving boyfriend. After reading the Kama Sutra, Jay asks Trishna in one of the film’s more poignant moments whether she is a maid, single woman or a concubine. She answers, “I don’t know.”
It’s this sort of inner struggle that’s so achingly portrayed via Winterbottom’s immediate style. Every shot drips intimacy as the film moves sporadically between joy and horror. Pinto’s face, often featured in close-up, displays heartbreaking fragility. Her wide-eyed character wants to see the best in people, and in herself, but that sort of idealism often leads her to make very questionable choices. You want her to succeed–perhaps because she seems doomed to fail. Unfortunately, fairy tale endings aren’t so easy to come by.
Trishna opens at the Crest Theatre on Aug. 3, 2012 and will run through Aug. 9. Go to http://thecrest.com/ for showtimes.