While I absolutely respect what Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna attempts to say about gender roles, changing cultural norms, and the concept of responsibility in modern India, I found myself utterly disengaged by the material itself. The film asks us to invest in its story, subtext, and characters without providing anything compelling to invest in, a central paradox that cripples the film early on and compounds in significance until the poorly developed, overwrought conclusion.
An issue of perspective is, perhaps, the film’s most debilitating flaw. Trishna is, as the title suggests, our main character, and the film is, above all else, a chronicle of her experiences as she tries to navigate a complex and fluid social landscape. Yet the film is not told from her point-of-view, nor from the perspective of a friend or outsider. Neither still is the perspective omnipotent, for the majority of characters are mysterious and obscure, held at arm’s length from us at all times. The same goes for Trishna. Winterbottom has no interest, at any point, in showing us Trishna’s unique perspective on the world she lives in, and as such, her mind is an enigma from start to finish.
The end result is a protagonist who is an absolute blank slate. She barely speaks, rarely emotes, and never seems to be the true focus of the narrative. This is not an inherently flawed approach. Trishna’s lack of personality is, I believe, an intentional statement about the unfortunate nature of feminine identity in India. Lower-class women like Trishna are made to be invisible, to do their work and go about their lives without attracting attention from men, at least until those men need them for selfish purposes.
This is an entirely valid and thought-provoking worldview, one that is absolutely worth discussing. But there is, I believe, a line between illustrating a character’s oppression and failing to bring that character to life in any way, shape, or form. It is a rather clear line, in fact, and Trishna falls on the wrong side of it. Were Trishna’s perspective clearer, her inward thoughts and feelings more palpable to the viewer, her outward emotional detachment would be an asset, for our understanding would allow us to empathize. As it stands, she is hollow, despite actress Freida Pinto’s truly impressive efforts.
Without the ability to emotionally invest or empathize with its central figure, the rest of the film quickly falls apart. Trishna is detached from and disinterested on engaging the viewer at every turn, and the film’s slow, circular, languid pacing quickly becomes tiring. As interested as I am in the things Winterbottom has to say, Trishna completely failed to hold my attention, and though it is certainly not a long film, there came a point where I found it difficult to trust my watch. With no compelling characters and a total lack of forward momentum, watching Trishna turns seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours, it pains me to say, into days. There came a point, long after the dènouement seemed to have passed, where I found myself wondering when, or even if, the film would ever end.
Lest my words sound too cruel, I must again stress how compelling I find the film’s subtext, even if the delivery is sorely lacking. Trishna speaks to the pressures young women are subjected to in a country that is culturally divided and rapidly changing. The protagonist has opportunities open to her that women of previous generations would never have experienced, including education and dignified employment and a reasonable wage. But these opportunities still exist within the confines of a patriarchal society, and advancement is still contingent on the status of the man she is romantically attached to.
These pressures inevitably push Trishna to a breaking point in the film’s final act, but the preceding material makes far too many missteps for the climax to have any emotional impact. In particular, I think it is a mistake that Trishna truly falls for the film’s male lead, Jay (Riz Ahmed, giving a painfully monotone, shallow performance). Many viewers will no doubt disagree with me, and while I understand the need for Trishna to undergo a romantic awakening, the decision ultimately prevents the narrative from portraying the dark side of their relationship until it is far too late. The couple has no chemistry, and the continual lack of perspective fails to give their romance the necessary weight. By the time the dénouement rolls around, our understanding of this relationship is still so lacking, their individual characters and interwoven personalities so poorly developed, that what should be a hard-hitting conclusion simply comes across as pretentious, and obnoxiously so.
It’s a shame. Trishna is well shot, confidently staged, beautifully scored, and underneath all its flaws, has a strong and assured feminist worldview that is sorely lacking in modern cinema. It is not my wish to dismiss a film like this, but it is what I must do. For all its admirable intentions and technical merits, Trishna is too far removed from the viewer to invest in, and not deep enough to warrant the effort.