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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton




Director Michael Winterbottom (2011)

Leafing through the Kama Sutra one day, Jay informs Trishna that the ancient sex guide advises that a man’s lover should be a maid, a young lady or a courtesan. “Which one are you?” he asks.

Trishna, of course, cannot answer. She is trapped, robbed of her ability to speak, by the insoluble conundrum of male-defined female identities. So Jay chooses for her. “You are all three,” he declares with self-satisfaction. As though he might even believe it’s a compliment.

But it’s the courtesan factor that inevitably determines their relationship, the direction of this sexual economy, and it is the source of Trishna’s final tragedy.

Michael Winterbottom sets his intelligent and powerful take on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urberville’s in India in order to recreate the necessary class divide between Jay (Riz Ahmed) and Trishna (Freida Pinto).

Jay is heir to his father’s hotel empire and travels to India to work in the family business. Trishna is a poor, but educated, young woman from the country. She is also breathtakingly beautiful and moves well in slow motion, especially through foliage, and Jay is hypnotised by the vision.

He offers her a job at his uncle’s posh hotel in Jaipur at 2,500 rupees a week, enough to keep her family while her father recovers from a tractor-based injury. She waits tables and begins a hospitality management qualification. Everything is working out nicely.

Then one night she’s attacked on her way back from a wedding. Jay happens to be passing on his scooter, rescues her, and one thing leads to another, as things generally do in these stories.

In shame, Trishna flees back to the country where her father insists she makes up the lost income, made worse having to fork out for an abortion, by working in a factory, packing tea.

Jay seeks her out and in a moment, tea left unpacked, whisks her off to Mumbai (called Bombay throughout the film – perhaps for a reason).

He’s got a finger in the Bollywood pie, and the couple are able to live together there openly as lovers. Trishna likes a dance and she’s sexy with it, so she joins the chorus-line rehearsals.

This is as idyllic as it’s going to get, the Bollywood musical soundtrack heightening the romance.

But in Jay Winterbottom has cleverly combined the two men in Tess’s life, nice Angel Clare and nasty Alec D’Urberville. In conversation he casually declares that Trishna doesn’t want to be a dancer, which is new to us. But Trishna smilingly agrees.

It’s a straw in the wind. And there’s another when he ‘accidentally’ makes her homeless. He apologises, though, and invites her to go and work for him at a hotel he’s going to manage.

Again, Trishna agrees. But this isn’t Mumbai and the affair must continue clandestinely. This takes the form of her bringing Jay his breakfast, lunch and evening meal – and while she’s there is forced to satisfy his increasingly pervy sexual needs. Full bed and board indeed.

After all, he says, she owes him. The class and power relations underlying the sexual transaction are laid bare with  Jay’s transition from Angel Clare to the rapist D’Urberville. What happened to the nice young chap at the start of the film? Was he bad all along? Did the class rift split him down the middle?

And there’s another thing. Winterbottom seems as transfixed by the beauty of India as much as Jay was with the beauty of Trishna. His camera dwells on vivid, shimmering detail. The richness of the soundtrack contrasts with the spare, extemporised dialogue.

As the film draws to its tragic, by now inevitable, closure, a group of schoolchildren, in military fashion, chant the Lord’s Prayer. In English. They too are, strangely, trapped in another’s language just as ‘Mumbai’ has failed to free itself from ‘Bombay’ and Trishna struggles to find her true voice.

Lurking behind the love story may lie another tale of imposed identities, of oppression, of exploitation, of a fight for liberation. The legacy of imperialism.

March 15, 2012

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