First Class, by Josh Long
If you’re like me, your idea of Michael Winterbottom may be tied to Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon laffers like The Trip and Tristam Shandy. His career is certainly more expansive and definitely worth exploring, but even a study of these films will show a surprising touch of humanity. He is a filmmaker who isn’t content to simply work his way through a story. He dwells on the details of people’s lives, leading to fuller, more developed characters. With Trishna, he digs deep into his characters’ humanity, and comes back with gold.
Winterbottom’s new film is adapted from the Thomas Hardy classic Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Though I have not read the book, I gather that the themes are very much consistent, even though the setting is transplanted to modern day India. The character of Tess becomes Trishna (Freida Pinto), a young, rural Indian girl who is caught up in a romantic entanglement with the wealthy Jay (Riz Ahmed). Jay first discovers Trishna while visiting her small town’s temple. He becomes infatuated with her, and invites her to come work for his father’s hotel. She agrees, but soon finds it difficult to balance Jay’s interest in her with her working class position. Eventually she feels forced to leave, but Jay follows and finds her. In a sweepingly romantic gesture, he invites her to come and live with him in Mumbai. Again she agrees, and is suddenly and overwhelmingly faced with a high-class, fast-paced urban life in India’s largest Metropolis. It is here that her relationship with Jay begins to deteriorate, and ultimately leads to a tragic end.
In exporting Tess of the D’Ubervilles to India, Trishna finds a fitting backdrop for this ostensible romance. The story is not just about the romantic relationship, it’s more about the plight of a woman from a lower class working world suddenly faced with a frightening modernity. We are excited when Trishna first has a chance to move away from her small town and make a life for herself, but it soon becomes clear that she can’t fit in. The scenes in Mumbai especially find her uncomfortably out of her element. Even though she has more than her provincial family could ever dream up, it doesn’t bring her happiness. It’s much like watching someone go through 100 years of socio-economic development in the space of a few months – the future shock is inevitable.
In addition to this difficulty, Trishna must struggle with her role as a woman, and particularly a lower-class woman. Hardy’s novel is known as a classic of feminist literature, and Trishna ably carries the torch. Trishna is torn between the Jay’s modern idea of “free” sexuality, and the traditional values of her family and small-town home. She finds herself unhappy with both, and this is part of her tragedy. Besides this, Jay brings Trishna into the upper class, but never truly sees her as worthy of his caste. Thus, when they have difficulties, he feels no need to offer her the same understanding he might to a fellow member of the upper-crust. When it becomes easier to use her for his own needs, he does so without flinching.
One of the many outstanding aspects of this film is the performance of Freida Pinto, whose big break came as Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. She manages to play an amazing range of subtle layers and emotions. After viewing the film, it’s easy to forget that she has relatively little dialogue. Even less so does she have dialogue explaining how she’s feeling. The script places her in these trying situations, and relies on the actress to portray her struggle merely through the details of her performance. We know what makes her happy, what makes her sad, and we can see those moments where she’s lost and overwhelmed, even if she says everything’s fine. It’s early in the year yet, but I’d venture to say this is Best Actress caliber work.
There seems to be an American fascination with Indian culture lately, and this may bolster Winterbottom’s film, though I don’t believe that’s his purpose for choosing this locale. India’s current cultural climate is an appropriate and poignant setting for the story. The film certainly highlights the cultural atmosphere of the place, but never in an exploitative way. It shows a range of lifestyles in modern-day India, each one given a chance to portray its particular complexities. Organic cultural explorations range from 2000 year old temples to the glamour of Bollywood.
Winterbottom’s familiar cinema-verite style complements the story in an unexpectedly effective way. Through a realistic approach, with handheld camera, natural lighting and organic blocking, the plot becomes somehow more relatable. The plot elements themselves have the potential to be over dramatic (even melodramatic) but the script and direction keep the film grounded at an accessible level. Trishna’s story doesn’t feel like it comes to us from the 19th century. It seems fresh, new and vital.
When reading a novel like Tess of the D’Ubervilles, it’s easy for us to cluck judgmentally at our ancestors and congratulate ourselves for being part of today’s progressive society. But films like Trishna remind us that these are universal struggles, and people not so far from us deal with them daily. Michael Winterbottom has created a beautiful film that explores the cultural climate of India, and honestly portrays the struggle of a woman trying to make sense of a world that seems pitted against her.