Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna

by Emma Burris-Janssen, University of Connecticut

Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna (2011) is his third Thomas Hardy-inspired adaptation, following both his bleak period piece, Jude (1996), based on Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure and The Claim (2000), which relocates Hardy’s 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the Trishna posterAmerican West. Trishna reimagines Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a contemporary tale set in India. Freida Pinto plays the titular Trishna, a rural woman who, like Tess Durbeyfield before her, is consistently “more sinned against than sinning.” In a major departure from the novel, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare are collapsed into a single character, Jay Singh, portrayed by Riz Ahmed.

The film opens as dawn breaks on a group of hung-over male tourists dissecting the places they have visited while in India. The place names rattle off their tongues like a list of sexual conquests: Darjeeling, Varanasi, Amritsar, Goa, Kerala. Among this group is Jay Singh, for whom this “grand tour” is a prelude to managing his father’s hotel chain in India. While traveling in the rural environs of Osian, Jay meets and begins to pursue the beautiful Trishna. In the manner of Alec d’Urberville, Jay showers Trishna and her impoverished family with gifts and gets her a job at one of his father’s hotels. The two get closer until a murky sexual encounter results in Trishna’s retreat back to her family. After her return, Trishna discovers she is pregnant and speedily procures an abortion. Later, Jay tracks down the desperately overworked Trishna and whisks her away to glamorous Mumbai. While in Mumbai, Jay and Trishna live together happily until Trishna confesses her abortion. Following this confession, Jay – like Angel – begins to reject Trishna: the next morning he snaps at her, ordering her around like a servant. Then, he flies to London to see his ailing father, leaving Trishna with a limited amount of money, a situation that eventually leads to her eviction from their shared apartment. When Jay finally returns to Trishna at the film’s end, he takes her to one of his father’s secluded, rural hotels where they live as master and servant, with Jay repeatedly raping Trishna until she stabs him to death. Following her stabbing of Jay, Trishna again returns to her family where she eventually commits suicide by stabbing.

At nearly two hours in length, Trishna offers a rich yet succinct reworking of Hardy’s key concerns in Tess: class exploitation, the rapid disappearance of rural life, and the potent power of sexual double standards. Naturally, some aspects of the novel are lost in Winterbottom’s loose translation, but Trishna provides a means of introducing students to contemporary critical conversations on colonialism, globalization, gendered violence, and criminality in both film and literature. Trishna updates Hardy’s themes in a way that promises to make them more legible to a modern audience. Because the film carries an R rating for its depictions of sexuality, violence, drug use, and language, it is best suited to college-level work.

Questions for Discussion

In Trishna, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare are collapsed into a single character – Jay Singh. What are the narrative consequences of fusing these two characters into one? What can this alteration show us about the functions performed by Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare in the original novel? How would you describe their relationship in the novel compared to their relationship in Winterbottom’s film? What reading of these characters is Winterbottom offering in his film?

Trishna ends in a clear act of suicide, while Tess of the d’Urbervilles ends with Tess’s capture by police and hanging. What do you make of these different endings? Are they really that different?

In Imperial Leather, her 1995 study of British imperialism, Anne McClintock argues that “the uncertain continents” often function as anachronistic spaces where “colonized people – like women and the working class in the metropolis – do not inhabit history proper but exist in a permanently anterior time within the geographic space of the modern empire” (30). Given the history of British imperialism in India, what are the implications of relocating Tess of the d’Urbervilles in contemporary India? Does this position contemporary India as an anachronistic space?

Feminist film critic Karen Hollinger defines the British “post-heritage film” as a film type that offers (predominantly female) viewers a safe, historical space where they can explore contemporary debates, particularly those related to gender and sexuality (154). Could we classify Trishna as a “post-heritage film”? If so, what contemporary debates are being explored? How do these contemporary debates map onto the 19th-century ones in the original novel?

Further Reading

Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Pulver, Andrew, and Henry Barnes. “Hardy’s Blood-Heat Melodrama Transfers Remarkably Smoothly.” theguardian.com, 2012. Web. 28 April 2015.

Strong, Jeremy. “Tess, Jude, and the Problem of Adapting Hardy.” Film and Literature Quarterly (January 2006): 195-203.

Winterbottom, Michael, and Freida Pinto. “A Conversation with: Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom” Interviewed by Shivani Vora. India Ink: Notes on the World’s Largest Democracy. The New York Times, 2012. Web. 30 April 2015.

Wright, T.R., ed. Thomas Hardy on Screen. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.