|Trishna (Frieda Pinto) in Trishna.|
By Ed Rampell
English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has adapted his countryman Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, which mostly takes place in 19th century rural Britain. In Winterbottom’s updated version, Tess becomes Trishna and the film is set in contemporary India, with a mostly Indian cast, starring the preternaturally beautiful Freida Pinto (the female lead in 2009’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire) in the title role.
Adaptations can be risky business. The good news is that Winterbottom’s reworking of Hardy’s classic is inspired. His update hews somewhat close to Hardy in terms of plot, but is especially true thematically, more faithful to the original in spirit than in letter.
The changes currently sweeping India parallel those in Hardy’s novel set against the backdrop of England’s 19th century industrial revolution, as economic upheavals forced the peasantry away from the countryside and into the cities. Trishna (Pinto, arguably motion pictures’ prettiest actress today) is a simple country girl whose beauty attracts Jay (as in Gatsby!)Singh, the son of an upper class family of Indian ancestry who has lived abroad. Jay is depicted by Oxford educated Riz Ahmed, who is of Indian/Pakistani heritage and starred as Shafiq Rasul, one of the railroaded Tipton Three in Winterbottom’s 2006 searing indictment of torture, The Road to Guantanamo.
Besotted by Trishna’s beauty, Jay pursues her, using his class advantages to lure her away from her ancestral village in Rajasthan, first to a luxury resort owned by his worldly wise if blind father (Roshan Seth). But the hotel biz is not for Jay; as he has show biz aspirations Jay moves to Bombay (Mumbai), where he and Trishna can live openly as an unmarried couple. The couple gets involved in Bollywood, but as one artist points out, Jay’s main talent is that his father is rich.
Trishna, on the other hand, not only has beauty, but can dance, and it seems as if this slumdog might become a millionaire by appearing in Bollywood musicals. But talentless Jay, who wants to keep her all to himself, discourages her. As a lower class -- or caste -- female Trishna is curiously passive. The story shows how in patriarchal society, all too often young women have little recourse for social advancement other than their looks, sexuality and youth. A tragic predicament, to be sure, especially in pre-feminist developing nations (although India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all had female heads of government and of state, while America is yet to have a woman president, so perhaps our ladies are not that much freer than their Third World sisters?).
Complications ensue and the couple must relocate to another one of Jay’s family’s resorts in the countryside, where social mores are more traditional and out-of-wedlock relationships are taboo. The property formerly was a palace, and Jay is ensconced in the bedroom of a medieval maharajah who had about 18 concurrent concubines. Meanwhile, it never seems to occur to Jay to wed his social “inferior” Trishna, who must pretend to be just another servant girl, as she becomes the Kama Sutra-reading hotelier’s virtual sex slave. Sometimes, beauty can be a curse.
The uprooted, cosmopolitan Jay seems to yearn for what he supposes is Trishna’s simplicity, rooted in ancient Indian culture. On the other hand, Trishna sees in Jay her entrée -- or, more crudely put -- ticket to that modern world beckoning to India’s rural masses, as urbanization, outsourcing and the like rock their age-old society. They are caught between two worlds. Opposites may attract, but they can also repel. Trishna’s humble origins have denied her an education, but beneath her passivity a fire is being stoked. Unable to verbally express herself, let’s just say that all hell breaks loose.
D.W. Griffith believed film photographs thought, and the Pinto wears her character’s inner life upon the sleeve of her exquisite face. She is such a natural thespian that we can virtually read her mind in close ups, an expressively eloquent actress in the tradition of the great silent screen artistes, like Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish. In films such as 2010’s Miral and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, whether playing an oppressed Palestinian or a London beauty who bewitches Josh Brolin’s married writer, Pinto demonstrates a range and depth. Imparting a Third World aesthetic on the screen, the Bombay-born actress and former model heralds a breakthrough in world cinema.
Winterbottom’s relocating of Tess of the d'Urbervilles to India is an eureka! movie moment, enhanced by its on location shooting in the subcontinent. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, I extend a laurel and Thomas Hardy handshake to Winterbottom.