“Trishna,” A Film Review
India: The Sacred and the Sensual
India, as I have said in another Blog Post, is a land of many contradictions.
On the one hand, India is deeply rooted in its Vedic/Hindu sacred culture, a culture of inward-journey paths, self-knowledge journeys, enlightenment/liberation rituals and transformations, and a monistic view of the universe that tells us all is “one.”
Some scholars claim that the Vedic tradition is steeped in mysticism, giving the tradition an aura of otherworldliness and the inexplicable.
Islam and Buddhism have also had many followers in India. And both religious traditions include spiritual paths and codes of moral behavior.
On the political side, but somewhat related to the more calming and inward-journey elements of the Vedic tradition, is the model of passive, non-violent resistance (ahisma). Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded this passive-resistance paradigm in India’s fight for independence from England.
India may be one of the great global centers of spiritual-journey-and-awakening teachings and traditions, but it is also the land of the Kama Sutra, a handy little guide for all kinds of intimate and allegedly spiritual sexual practices.
India has always had a kind of love-affair with the mythological character Krishna, an iconic Indian mythological hero. Krishna reveals the more carefree side of Indian culture in his fictional role as an adolescent lover who could attract the daughters and wives of cowherds with the playing of his flute, women who would dance ecstatically with him in the forest. Although never portrayed as a malveloent seducer and predator, Krishna comes close to a free-love libertine in his gently seductive presence among willing maidens and village beauties.
And if Bollywood films tell us anything, dance and song, performed by lithe actors and actresses in serpentine and liquid body movements, have become the venue for a variety of sensual, physical, and emotional expression in Indian film (Bollywood films are certainly about escapism, but they also represent an acceptance, if not a reverence for the sacredness of physicality and sensuality. And some would argue that dance and song are the more joyous aspects of Brahma-like creative energy in the same way that the Kama Sutra is more about that same kind of energy discovered and practiced in various sexual activities—leading the monists to claim, of course, that the natural, the sensual, and the physical realms are all “manifestations” of the universe’s one essence).
Poverty and Capitalism
And yet another paradox: India still remains a land of profound poverty (according to one source, 68.7% live on less than US$ 2.00 a day). And it is a land that, for centuries, developed a deeply entrenched caste system with Dalits (the untouchables) at the lower end of the social/economic spectrum and Brahmins (the chosen class of religious leaders in addition to a separate and distinct class of wealth and privilege) at the upper end.
On the other hand, Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur, and Bangalore are quickly becoming the urban centers of a metastasizing capitalism.
Characters as Symbols of Indian Culture
Jay Singh and Trishna, the two central characters in Michael Winterbottom’s film, “Trishna,” both have their ancestral connections to India, either by heritage or by geography.
Educated in England, Jay returns to his homeland to manage one of his father’s hotels. He returns with all of the resources of a privileged, always-in-control capitalist who is bowed to by the Indian hotel staff and publicly addressed as “sir” by Trishna.
Winterbottom allows Jay a brief moment of Indian pride in his cultural heritage when he makes a quiet plea to his male party-loving friends that the pursuit of beaches and girls is the “least Indian thing you can do.” He wants to take the higher moral road, at least, initially. “Golden Temple, that’s me,” he says. And, in the next scene, he and his friends are given a tour through a local ancient Hindu temple.
Jay eventually descends into the darker world of his own increasing alienation. Although his psychological descent is partially a result of his obsession with Trishna, he is ultimately left with a sense of utter powerlessness over ever being able to have a complete, open, and culturally acceptable relationship with Trishna.
Jay is a strong, head-of-the-pack alpha-male who is used to being control. He administers his father’s hotels and assets, he has complete autonomy over investing some of his father’s money in a Bollywood film, he leases an expensive beach-side apartment for himself and Trishna, he picks up the tab for all of Trishna’s personal expenses and for courses leading to a hotel management degree. Except for the small group of urban artists in Mumbai who are totally accepting of his relationship with Trishna, the relationship is a dead-end in the general culture and, particularly, in his family.
This lack of powerlessness intensifies Jay’s increasing alienation and frustration. And it ultimately robs him of any connection to the more benevolent spiritual tradition he initially wanted to defend as a Golden-Temple advocate. When he begins to read the Kama Sutra, it is not because he wants a heightened spiritual experience from his sexual activity with Trishna; he merely wants to find new techniques to satiate his sexual appetite. By reducing the Kama Sutra to a sex manual, Jay moves further and further away from any connection to his Indian Golden-Temple heritage.
It is also clear that Jay has very little linguistic ties to his country of his heritage. He speaks no Hindi, exclusively adopting the English language of India’s colonial occupiers.
Throughout the film, Jay remains on the fringes of his Indian heritage. Although his demise is of his own doing, I don’t believe it is an accident that his psychological descent parallels his marginal relationship to that heritage.
Trishna as Honor-Driven Heroine
Trishna is a local village girl of extraordinary beauty, who, despite succumbing to Jay’s advances, still retains a strong sense of duty to her family by sending home money she earns at the hotels where she is hired by Jay. Even in her last two violent acts, audiences are more likely to judge her as a “victim” of circumstance, not as a character casually dodging her familial responsibilities.
Until Trishna finally decides to take action against her lover, she passively accepts Jay’s financial, social, and sexual control over her. Part of her passivity can be attributed to her cultural heritage. As a lower-class woman, she must publicly show deference to Jay, a wealthy and educated man from the upper class. Another part of that passivity is also a result of her realistic acknowledgment that she is financially and socially dependent on him.
However, her psychological and moral stature gains momentum as she comes to the inevitable conclusion that Jay’ sexual abuses of her can no longer continue. In choosing to murder Jay, Trishna rises above her culturally-driven self-abnegation by taking control of her own destiny.
Winterbottom orchestrates the film’s final scenes juxtaposing Trishna’s dignified, but grief-stricken walk to her own doom with images of school children reciting a plea for forgiveness from the “Our Father,” a traditional Christian prayer (“forgive us our trespasses”) and the Indian national Pledge of Allegiance (“India is my country. All are my brothers and sisters. And all elders”).
Trishna may be walking to her death, but viewers are being quietly convinced that India still considers her a “sister” and that even God will forgive her.
“Trishna” as Psychological Thriller and Social Commentary
I think it would be safe to say that Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna,” is a film of many colors and textures. It is a psychological thriller while, at the same time, it contains many social commentaries about Indian culture, sewing its narrative from two threads: a sexually-charged obsessive relationship and a seemingly inflexible social code that even, in modern times, discourages crossing the lines of class, education, and social background. (Winterbottom softens the Indian caste system by generalizing it into a class and education divide between Jay and Trishna, a softening that some would say dilutes the more entrenched and rigid caste divisions.)
Trishna lives with her extended family in a cottage that affords barely enough room for the entire family in the small village of Osian located in the state of Rajasthan. She helps her father deliver goods to the market. On one of the deliveries, the father falls asleep at the wheel and becomes temporarily disabled.
This narrative fuses into the second narrative when Jay first sees Trishna and is immediately smitten. He soon offers her a position at one of the hotels his father owns. She is persuaded by her family to take the position, allowing her to send money home to support the family.
It becomes clear from the beginning of the film that Jay is on his own journey of obsession, asking Trishna to serve him privately in his hotel room. Eventually, he seduces her after rescuing her from a potential sexual violence scene as she is returning to the hotel from Jaipur.
Trishna flees the hotel steeped in her own shame for having given up her virginity to Jay. She returns home and soon discovers she is pregnant. She is taken to the local hospital where she receives an abortion.
She is sent away to care for an ailing aunt in a small village where she gets a job in a local factory. Jay finds her there and asks her to come live with him in Mumbai. She does not hesitate and leaves with Jay as she walks out of the factory job and her role as caretaker to her aunt.
In Mumbai, Jay introduces Trishna to a group of actors and dancers who are rehearsing for a Bollywood film that Jay has agreed to underwrite with his father’s money.
All Is Not Well In Paradise
Jay’s strong but often subtle shades of paternalism begin to be immediately evident in their stay in Mumbai. When they arrive in their apartment overlooking the beach, he shows Trishna the kitchen and simply says, “This is where you’ll be spending most of your time.” When he is questioned by one of the dance troupe why he won’t allow Trishna to dance, he reveals his strong authoritarian side: “She doesn’t want to be a dancer” and then quickly ends the conversation, “So, we’re happy. That’s how we like it.” (As Oscar Wilde might interject at this point in the movie, “all is not well in paradise.”)
On the night before Jay has to return to London because his father has a stroke, he tells Trishna that he doesn’t want any “secrets” in their relationship. As they are both laying in bed, he admits to her that he has had sexual relations with two of the women Trishna was introduced to.
In her naivete, Trishna reveals that she had an abortion. Jay’s body begins to tense up as he pulls his hand away from her. His icy response reveals that he he is having his male authority threatened, especially by a lower-class woman. He sees no hypocrisy or double standard in decrying her secret abortion while casually revealing his secret sex life with women Trishna was recently introduced to.
The next day, he coldly leaves the apartment for London without even a goodby embrace.
Trishna’s Brief Bout With Independence
This space of time in the film allows for a brief interlude when Trishna is seen in stronger relief as a woman of potential independence.
A real-estate woman arrives at the apartment to tell Trishna the lease on the apartment is up and that she has to move out. She moves in with a group of dancers and is later approached by Avit, a dance coordinator, who tells her that he will loan her the money to get a Cine Dancer card, allowing her try out as a dancer in films. Even though nothing comes of the offer because of Jay’s return, the camera gives us several glimpses of Trishna dancing in a group, offering the viewers the hopeful possibility that Trishna could actually strike out on her own as an accomplished dancer.
Jay’s return from London changes all of that. And Trishna is back to being the servant in the hotel that Jay has been forced to manage because none of his brothers are willing to take over the father’s hotel business.
The Deterioration of the Love Relationship
The relationship between the two begins to rapidly deteriorate. Jay starts to drink more, listen to decibel-level rock music, and then begins reading the the Kama Sutra. Over a brief period of time, he forces Trishna to act out a variety of almost pornographic sexual roles as his sexual slave. After the final sex scene when he sodomizes Trishna, he falls asleep in a drunken stupor.
Trishna walks to the kitchen, wraps a kitchen knife in a cloth napkin, returns to the apartment, and vengefully stabs her lover several times.
Locking up the apartment, she returns to her village. Viewers discover that the money she has been sending to her family has been spent on a refrigerator, a new television, and tuition for her two younger siblings. Her father refuses to talk to her after he initially asks her where she’s been (In leaving the ailing aunt, Trishna had violated her obligatory duty to the family).
In the final scene, she walks the children to their private school, and then goes to a small hillside where she plunges the same kitchen knife into her stomach. We can only assume that, as Trishna walks to her death, the childrens’ prayers and the words of the Pledge of Allegiance are meant to soften any condemnation of her acts. In the end, she is portrayed as a victim of social and economic forces over which she had no control and, ultimately, took the more honorable course of action as a moral agent of the good.
“Trishna” As Classic Love Story: Obstacles Feeding the Passion
In “Trishna,” Winterbottom has also created a film that has all the ingredients of a classic tragic love story.
In most of those love narratives—Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello and Desdemona, Dido and Aeneas, Eloise and Abelard, Zhivago and Lara, Jules and Jim—lovers start out with an almost invincible passion. But the passion is generally confronted with obstacles the lovers cannot overcome. The obstacles abrasively work against the passion but, at the same time, they feed the very life-force and sexual energy the obstacles work to diminish (another lover, jealousy, duty, war, geographical distance, a family/tribal feud, social codes, ethnic/religious enmities, racial divides).
In this film, the social and economic barriers between Trishna and Jay are fatalistically woven into the love narrative, while, at the same time, the forced secrecy of their relationship adds to Jay’s intense need to sexually conquer, even annihilate, the personal identity of Trishna. Because he can’t have Trishna in any communal-marital sense, he reduces her to a private sex object. His psychological world becomes smaller and smaller as he makes every attempt to pull Trishna into his deviant world of sexual conquest and objectification.
In her inevitable act of revenge (clearly visible in her facial expression as she plunges the knife into Jay several times), Trishna has, in the end, taken over the reins of power. She is no longer the passive victim of her lover’s paternalism and his enforced objectification of her as his sex slave.
After she murders Jay, her final destructive act is seamlessly worked out after she makes her final return to her village and makes the decision to commit suicide.
Indian culture, a classic tragic love story, alienation, the class divide, the cultural paradoxes of spirituality and rich sensuality—it’s all there in “Trishna.”
Give it a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.