Friday, July 13, 2012

Trishna: Rated "A" for "Avoid, yaar."

I should start this review by saying that I’ve never been particularly impressed by Freida Pinto’s acting but considering that the film was adapted from Tess of the d’Ubervilles (I love 19th century British literature) and directed by Michael Winterbottom (I have fond memories of Tristam Shandy and 24 Party People) it didn’t seem impossible that I might like Trishna. Unfortunately, it was pretty clear about ten minutes into the film that Winterbottom was going to be showing us India as if it was National Geographic Channel travel documentary but, just to show you how open-minded I was being, until all the non-consensual sex, I was ready to sign off on Trishna as a film that I might find tedious but Western people who love “exotic India” would probably enjoy. Maybe it’s my own fault for not having read the book but as Freida Pinto blankly stares past the camera as she’s about to get raped for what feels like the billionth time, my stomach churned, and I couldn’t help but think, “Why didn’t anybody warn me about this?”

The film opens with British-Asian Jay (Riz Ahmed) and his buddies enjoying some ganja and trying to shake off the aftereffects of too much bhang. Jay’s father (the delightful Roshan Seth) owns some hotels in Rajasthan and Jay is there to learn the business. Trishna (Freida Pinto) is employed at one of these hotels and Jay swiftly becomes infatuated with her. Trishna remains indifferent to Jay’s charms until a family tragedy forces her to take up the offer of employment at another one of his father’s hotels... one he’ll be managing directly. Needing the large sum of money he’s offering, Trishna accepts.

Jay, being a lazy and entitled rich boy whose real name is probably Jai, tries to woo Trishna as if she was a London girl. Trishna is wary but she accepts all of his advances. This one-sided relationship swiftly crosses the line to non-consensual sex, which continues from the hotel (managing hotels just isn’t Jay’s “thing,” man) to Bombay (Jay is going to produce filums) and back to Rajasthan (where Jay’s “managing” looks more like laying around doing jack shit), with Trishna just passively accepting whatever it is Jay wants her to do - cook, clean, dance sexy, and accept any and all sexual advances.

Leaving aside all the non-consensual sex for a minute, there were three major problems with Trishna. The first was the ridiculous amount of travel documentary footage. Not only were there scenes of Jay getting a tour of this haveli or that temple but endless amounts of scenery, exotic locals, city streets, etc. I kept waiting for voice over narration to break in: “The area now known as Mumbai has been continuously occupied for over 2,000 years...” It didn’t help matters that many of the locations Winterbottom used were familiar to me as a Bollywood viewer and while he was fetishizing the scenery, I kept drifting off and remembering song picturizations I had seen which were shot at this hotel or that hotel. This kind of thing might keep those “exotic India” lovers happy but is distracting for the rest of us.

The second strike against the film is Pinto as Trishna. I said before I’ve never been a fan of Pinto and this film didn’t change my mind. On one of Jay’s endless hotel tours, we’re shown an exotic window in an exotic haveli that allows the person standing inside to see out but people outside can’t see in - the perfect metaphor for Pinto as Trishna. Not once do we get a sense of what Trishna is feeling as she goes through all this. Trishna is a passive character by both circumstances, as a girl in a traditional household, and by personality. But there are a few places in the script where Trishna is given a choice and, though it is the more difficult decision, she chooses Jay. But why? She seems indifferent to him at best. With a better actress, perhaps, we would have gotten an inkling of what she was thinking - was she hoping for marriage? Actually in love? Scared to be alone? Bored of her current circumstances? Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

And then there is the clumsy handling of Bollywood. Winterbottom, dude, I get that you wanted to add some of that Slumdog “Jai Ho” magic but it didn’t work. Not only were there a couple of “song breaks” where we saw more of that oh so “exotic” scenery but woven into the middle of the film is a pointless Bollywood subplot seems like nothing more than an excuse to shoehorn in cameos from Anurag Kashyap and Kalki Koechlin, as well as a shoddily executed attempt at film a “real” Bollywood song. Now, that is a lot of dick quotes - see what you made me do, Winterbottom? The Indian style of storytelling through film is more complicated than shaking the camera back and forth a few times.

But back to the rape. I am anti-rape in real life but I understand that there are times when a story requires that something horrible happen to the heroine. We all remember the dark days of Shakti Kapoor and Ranjeet raping every other hero’s sister in the 80s but in recent years, rape in film seems less for the audience’s sexual pleasure and more as a tool to illustrate the evils of sexual violence against women, placing the shame right where it belongs, on the man doing the raping. But what happens in Trishna is handled about as socially conscious a manner as Ranjeet in a shirt unbuttoned to the navle, leaning against a doorframe, and hitting up every other lady who passes by with a trademarked, “ehhh...” Trishna getting repeated raped I hated but could accept as part of the story; Trishna getting repeated raped in soft-focus lighting after doing a strip tease for the audience just turned my stomach.

The question I was left with at the end of the film was this: Why does Trishna leave her friends in Bombay and go off to Rajasthan to be a maid/whore to some guy she clearly doesn’t like? Trishna’s Bombay friends are supportive and chatty and full of girl power. Some of that modern spirit should have rubbed off on our village belle heroine in the months she was there. But that modern spirit doesn’t rub off because Michael Winterbottom wrote the screenplay and he understands neither women nor India. The talking points for the film are all about how Jay is supposed to represent the “modern India” and Trishna is the “traditional India” and maybe that is what Winterbottom intended to do but the result showed merely that he undstands neither modern nor traditional India beyond what anybody could glean from a couple viewings of Bride and Prejudice.

Unless you are a huge Freida Pinto fan, you’re better off avoiding Trishna.


Bombay Talkies said...

"Unless you are a huge Freida Pinto fan..."

Does such a thing exist?

I'm avoiding this like the plague because I can't stand Freida Pinto, and because the only people I know who are excited about it are the Jezebel (blog) types who coo over Indian women because they're "so exotic!" GAG.

Mo Pitz said...

You know what, I'm going to go ahead and take exception to that Jezebel comment. At what point do Jezebel people fawn over the "exotic"ness of Indian women? That's some buuuullshit. Actually they bring a LOT of news about Indian women to light at that blog - both the controversial to the frivolous -- like people giving Aishwarya a hard time for her weight-- that most westerners have ZERO idea is going on. So sorry if it's not handled in whatever way you think it should be -- but it's certainly not presented in a weird "oh so exotic!" way.

Bombay Talkies said...

I take it you haven't read Jezebel in a long long time then. Check any of their "snap judgement" posts which feature Indian women and count the number of times the word "exotic" comes up. It's disgusting. And I have yet to read an article on that site about India that wasn't poorly researched and full of generalizations. Jezebel makes a complete hash of covering non-Western cultures.

And their coverage of Aishwarya Rai's weight was a compilation of American and European articles that were weeks old (if not older). Even the shitty New York Daily News managed to get to that before Jez did.

eliza bennet said...

What I'm curious about is that where is Angel? (It is the third lead in the novel)

Filmi Girl said...

No comment on Jezebel - sometimes they get it right and sometimes they fall into "Shit White Girls say to *fill in the ethnicity*" stereotype.

But the more I think about Trishna the angrier I get... why is Trishna so fucking passive? I keep thinking about all the dynamic village belle characters I've seen in films and how they wouldn't put up with two seconds of Jay's bullshit. AND even if she was acting from obligation at first, after her time in Bombay she would have definitely grown a backbone. I keep thinking back to my interview with the woman who was making the Bollywood documentary whose name I don't have time to look up but she talks about this young woman, an aspiring dancer, who came to Bombay from some small village and after a few months in Bombay she was all, "Hello, sweeee~eeetie! *air kiss air kiss*" like anybody else working in the industry.

How does Trishna remain so infuriatingly passive about herself in the middle of all that?

Maybe because Winterbottom doesn't see her as a person but his own Exotic Marigold Hotel canvas.

Filmi Girl said...

@eliza I think he combined both male leads into "Jay."

p. said...

Filmi Girl,

Are you based in LA or SF by chance? Would love to connect.

Thank you for all the support so far. Today's the SF premiere of PATANG (July 13th - July 19th) and then next week in LA (July 20th to 26th).


Filmi Girl said...

Hey Prashant!

I'm actually in Washington, DC. :)

But I wish you all the best - it's just too bad that crap like Trishna is getting represented in the West as "India" when your film tackled the same culture clash but, you know, while treating the characters as actual people instead of puppets in National Geographic Community Theater.

Moimeme said...

@FG - I think you'd find the answers to all your questions if you'd read Tess the book. Admittedly it's been a loooong time since I read it for my English class in college, but I do remember some of the discussion from my instructor, and the fact that I disliked it because I found the character of Tess too passive and boring. Also I didn't think Hardy understood women, either. :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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