*** Warning ‘ere be spoliers ***
Michael Winterbottom chose to set his modern movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles in current-day India, because that is where the changes of a rapidly industrialising society most reflects the setting of 19th century rural England, in which the original novel takes place. Updating a classic of English literature to an exotic modern locale is an interesting new take on the Hardy novel, demonstrating that the social differences between the upper and the lower classes in 19th century England apply just as well to the societies of other cultures in our own day and age.
Tess has become Trishna, and Winterbottom has chosen to conflate the two male characters from the novel, Angel and Alec, into one person in the movie, Jay, and the story has been changed, modernised and simplified quite a bit as well, but in my opinion it works just as nicely from a cinematic-narrative point of view as any other good TV or movie adaptation of this classic novel.
Trishna is a 19-year-old girl from a very poor family in a rural Indian town called Ossian. On a tourist trip, Jay, the Oxford-raised son of very wealthy Indian parents, sees her and offers her a job at the expensive hotel that he is managing for his father. It is not a Western style high-rise hotel, but an old Maharajah palace converted into a luxury hotel. Because her family need the money, Trishna accepts, and Jay is a perfect gentleman towards her, and she likes him, too. At some point Trishna is invited to a friend’s wedding, and when the rest of the party wants to keep partying into the night, Trishna doesn’t want to join them and must go home alone. She is accosted by shady types on the street, but thanks to the modern marvel of the cell phone, Jay shows up on a scooter to take her home. Only, he doesn’t take her home but stops in a forest and seduces her. This is not a rape, but the next morning Trishna still feels so ashamed that she packs her things and goes back to her family. She soon gets another job in a nearby town, but Jay shows up and asks her to come with him to a new life in Mumbai, where no one knows them and they can live as lovers. Trishna agrees to this, knowing that they can only be together if no one knows how poor she really is. Obviously, Jay’s parents would never consent to a marriage between them.
In Mumbai, living off Jay’s considerable wealth, they have a joyous romance, and Trishna is introduced to the glitzy Bollywood life, given dance lessons and making all sorts of new contacts – all the while maintaining the secret of her lowly origins. But after a while, things change. Jay’s father is hospitalised in England, and on the eve of Jay having to go see him, Trishna tells Jay that she had gotten pregnant after their first encounter and had to have an abortion. Jay is hurt by this, and after he leaves she doesn’t hear from him again. The lease of their apartment runs out, and Trishna has to go stay with a friend. Later Jay does return, and apologises for his long silence. His family business necessitates that he becomes the manager of one of their other palace hotels, although this is not what he wants, and he asks Trishna once again to come with him, to work at the hotel, and be his lover. She once again agrees. But Jay is embittered with his own life and due to the class differences, his relationship with Trishna once again has to be secret. She brings him his lunch every day, and spends her lunch-break with him, and the nights. But they have to maintain a substantial distance between them, to keep the whole thing covert. So it becomes more and more about sex and less and less about love, and Trishna becomes more and more like a sex slave.
After this humaniliation has gone on for too long, one day she takes a kitchen knife and stabs Jay to death. She then goes home to her family, brings them gifts, and then goes to a hill and… well, you can probably imagine.
It’s a good movie. It works as a quite realistic tragedy, and it is accomplished in its Indian setting. The plot of the movie compared to the original novel, while different, is very recognisable, also in its symbolism and themes. The one thing that might be criticised about it as a modern movie is that Trishna seems too passive, esp. in the final act, where she might have resisted Jay’s treatment of her. But, this is perhaps part of the tragedy, because this sort of behavior in women (and probably also in men) is actually both realistic and common. Under bad circumstances, there is a tendency for people to endure their situation past the point where they should reasonably object against it, so that the final protest becomes all the more violent; the frustration all the more explosive. This is very sad and very destructive, but it happens, and it happens often. Probably especially in situations where the two people involved come from very different backgrounds and therefore have problems understanding each other’s limits and moral standards.
The soundtrack is a fine blend of Western and Bollywood styles; we don’t have the great sing-and-dance numbers that Indian movies have, but there are songs interspersed with the narrative which serve the same function, at the appropriate places.
The movie works for me in just about every way, and I fail to understand why it has such a relatively low rating at IMDb.com; possibly it is simply because too few people have seen it yet.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed and others.
Runtime: 117 min.