The title character of Michael Winterbottom's latest movie, "Trishna," experiences a dark twist on the Cinderella story set in contemporary India. Played by the stunning "Slumdog Millionaire" beauty Freida Pinto, truck driver's daughter Trishna finds her prince in the privileged India-born, English-educated hotel heir Jay (Riz Ahmed). But, once the ball is over and the glass slipper has been placed on the foot, the true awfulness begins. Before long, Trishna's happily-ever-after dreams fade.
As performed by Pinto in a role that plays to her strengths, Trishna is a woman of staggering beauty inside and out. She emits light whether she's dancing for tourists at the local fancy hotel well beyond the budget of her rural family, or playing with her younger sister in the dirt yard outside the family hut. She pulses with goodness, drudging dutifully like Cinderella among the ashes and dreaming of better things.
There is never any doubt that Trishna is more worthy than the beautiful boy who enters her life on a Jeep, but the deck is stacked against her. In contemporary Indian society, the rich son of a rich man has all the power. And when she is plucked by the handsome yuppie, even though we have seen how cavalier he is with his dope-smoking continental friends, we hope that he is better than he seems. We hope that he will make her Bollywood Cinderella dreams true. We're as much a sucker as she is.
Anyone who has read the Thomas Hardy novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," upon which the movie is loosely based, knows that Trishna, like Tess, dances toward tragedy. It's a Hardy-luck life. This meeting of highborn and lowborn in the East, rather than the English countryside, will not end well.
As an image of women in film, Trishna is a traditional feminine icon, as opposed to a contemporary feminist one. At home, she lives under the patriarchal thumb. Her father dictates her actions, and she submits.
After he crashes the family truck and imperils their livelihood, dad tells Trishna to go to the city and work for Jay at his father's Jaipur hotel, because the money she makes will support the family. And, months later, when Trishna returns pregnant from her unsupervised adventure, he insists she abort the baby and shuttles her off in shame to work for an uncle.
Shouldn't her life with Jay be an improvement? Well, no. This Cinderella remains subservient, even when her surroundings change and her material possessions improve. While Jay speaks our language, dances to our music, and behaves with familiar contemporary college-educated jocularity, in some ways what he offers Trishna is just as antiquated as the curry back home.
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Trishna shares Jay's bed. They hang out with his friends. He gives her the illusion of a contemporary couple. But it's an illusion: She has no power in the relationship.
When Jay discovers Trishna's pregnancy and subsequent abortion, he does not acknowledge his contribution to the dilemma. From that moment, even though they are back together in Bombay, and then Jaipur, he withdraws the one thing that made their life together magical: his physical and emotional love. By pulling all the strings, Jay turns even their lovemaking into an act of subjugation.
Through Jay, Trishna tastes freedom beyond her family's mud hut and then is returned to her cage. She can no more unlock herself than Cinderella can turn a pumpkin into a carriage, or white mice into coachmen. That's her tragedy -- and it's at the root of the movie's violent conclusion. While she can't act to improve her situation, she can act to end it.
Trishna's traditional dilemma has resonance because it's put into the context of the Bollywood Internet-driven cultural moshpit that has become familiar to Westerners in a way that the Wessex of Hardy's Tess is not. One major takeaway from "Trishna" is that educated women in the West underappreciate their freedom of choice in contemporary society. We are no longer Cinderellas awaiting princes to pave our way in the world. Face it: Glass slippers are uncomfortable. That liberty is a major accomplishment, and one that is denied Trishna. When this young woman gets ripped from the fabric of her life, however restrictive, there is no safety net, no safe place to stitch herself back in. She is unsafe in the city, and considered used goods in the country. She has been betrayed by love and passion in a society that hypocritically allows men sexual freedom and punishes lower-class women for the same behavior. What Winterbottom does by taking a Victorian English rose and folding her into a contemporary lower-class Indian woman is to remind us of the powerful freedoms that we take for granted -- and that are not universal. And that for the powerless, sometimes violence is the only answer.
See a clip from 'Trishna':