Victorian India with a limp dishrag and a sex sadist
Having done Thomas Hardy adaptations twice before, Michael Winterbottom had the idea of transferring Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern India, where Victorian poverty indeed coexists with dramatic new wealth and a lingering feudal sense of class. Using a single character to embody both Tess’s original suitors, the exploitative aristocrat Alex and the ambitious businessman Angel, the director creates as strong and disturbing a picture of class and gender inequality in Rajistan and Bombay as Hardy does in rural Wessex in 1870. And there’s success in the way so many sequences are queasy-making. Besides, Winterbottom to some extent successfully cannibalises Indian cinema, touching his screen momentarily with the magic wand of Bollywood. But the movie falls down when it comes to character development and a convincing story line. The principals are shallow and the action moves forward by inexplicable fits and starts, going from a first hour of demure but unconvincing restraint on the part of the wealthy young man to his pretty poor girl’s transformation into a desperate sex slave. When he begins using the Kama Sutra as a guide to his lunch hour activities both Trishnas, film and protagonist, have run off the rails and the movie has turned into a dreary slog in which Winterbottom is pushing his main characters around like chess pieces. The action moves toward an increasingly sordid and volatile finale that feels quite artificial.
Rich young Jay (Riz Ahmed) is called back from lengthy schooling in England to manage one of the luxury hotels owned by his blind “property developer” father (Rothsan Seth). Seth, who was so amusing in Stephen Frears’ delightful 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, has an odd little scene, but how one can be blind and a successful property manager is a question left unanswered. Jay joins with several mates who roar across the countryside chanting a song that goes, “I’m king, and she’s my queen, bitch!” by the British rock group Kasabian and we see how un-Indian and dangerous and yet how crudely Raj they are. Several times they run into the beautiful Trishna (Frieda Pinto), the uneducated daughter of an auto rickshaw driver, who’s working at a lowly job in a hotel. Soon she must accept his patronage to support her desperate family, which includes enough children to populate a kindergarten.
So Jay brings Trishna to work in a hotel he’s involved with, though he never seems to work. Their contacts are chaste, and almost romantic, till one night he has sex with her — which we don’t see; the film doesn’t get loose till later when Jay abandons hotel-keeping to dabble in movies in Mumbai, and takes Trishna. There she gets to hang out with Jay’s well-off friends — the writing doesn’t show us what they may think of her — and indulging her passion for Bollywood song and dance, makes industry contacts and learns she may have a future. But Jay prefers to use her as an attractive accessory and a sex doll for his romps in bed.
Once Jay discovers just before returning to London to tend to his suddenly ill father that on that first night he got Trishna pregnant and she had an abortion and didn’t tell him, he turns against her for this secrecy. Leaving her to fend for herself in Mumbai without paying the rent on his expensive sublet, Jay never calls or writes but eventually comes back to India to run another rural resort hotel — with even less indication that he does any work, and he takes her with him, far from the Bollywood career she might have had. As a hotel manager, he now never even seems to get out of bed, turning into a total sensualist. Trishna is back to working as a hotel employee, but this time the chaste relationship is long gone. Jay’s Kama Sutra orgies with her, which she clearly doesn’t enjoy and which are sketched in pretty clearly for us now, are noted by the staff, who suspect, shall we say, a “relationship.” Again the script falls short of real detail.
Things go very badly after that, but Trishna’s revenge doesn’t lead to apprehension by the authorities as in the Hardy original, and the outcome is rendered simpler by the absence of a second man in the heroine’s life.
Attractive people, exotic locales, and gorgeous cinematography aside, the film is brought down by a screenplay that fails in its futile attempts to advance the action by moving Trishna and Jay to new locations, without motivation or convincing dialogue. It never makes sense that after their long romantic period in Mumbai Jay would suddenly turn permanently against her and become her sadistic sex slaver merely because she’s concealed her abortion, and all such scenes of emotional shifting are clumsily handled. The other thing is that however beautiful she may be, Frieda Pinto seems to have returned to her pre-Slumdog role of fashion model. Apart from too-brief stints of joyous aerobic conditioning known as Bollywood dancing, she is nothing but a limp dishrag as a character. She should hve been allowed to speak up for herself and show anger once in a whle, as Tess does, so that her submission would be truly tragic, and not just depressing. Michael Winterbottom is admirable for always experimenting, and he has scored big with things as different as the comedy-documentary The Triip, 24 Hour Party People (both with Steve Cogan), the political bio-drama and Angelina Jolie vehicle A Mighty Heart, and the Laurence Sterne takeoff Tristram Shandy. But he flops sometimes, and he has done so here.
DIRECTOR: MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM
SCREENWRITERS: MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM FROM THOMAS HARDY NOVEL
STARRING: FREIDA PINTO, RIZ AHMAD, ANURAD KASHYAP
RUNTIME: 117 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: INDIA, UK