In 1891, Thomas Hardy‘s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles was published. It didn’t hit the book seller stalls immediately as it was serialized in a newspaper. While the original publication received mixed reviews, the book would later be called a classic novel and is likely still being read in English Lit classes even today.

The novel was produced as a silent film in 1913 and 1924. In the modern era, in 1979, Roman Polanski adapted the novel and released his film called Tess which starred Nastassja Kinski and Peter Firth. In 2008, the novel was made into a multi-part mini-series which aired on television (on BBC and in the USA on the PBS Masterpiece Classics series).

Which brings us to 2011. British Film Director Michael Winterbottom adapted the novel, or used it as the basis of his film; updating the setting from 19th Century England to the 21st century in modern-day India. Winterbottom has said that during the 19th Century, Britain had evolved from a rural and agrarian economy to a place that was the most dynamic urban and industrialized economy in the world. Yet is was a place where cultural differences not only still existed between the upper and lower class strata of society, but the whole fabric of society was based upon keeping the classes separate. Winterbottom went on to point out that it would be difficult to recreate that period of history, in a period film, in today’s England.

India, on the other hand, still offered, in its small towns and rural areas, places where class differences, economic differences, and cultural and educational differences where right there in front of people; there at the same time as societal changes were occurring. Yet there were still family traditions, outlooks on sexual conduct, and economic and religious customs that were still resistant to changes brought about by modern thinking. So that was thinking and background about why the film was set in India.

Trishna is both a love story and a tragedy. One could say it is the story of a woman who was destroyed by falling in love and her own circumstances.

Trishna is played by Frieda Pinto. Her circumstances were that she lacked education, lacked connections or opportunities, and was bound by family ties and other Old World traditions and obligations. She was working at a resort hotel near her small village of Ossian, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. She is noticed by Jay Singh (played by Riz Ahmed) who is the son of a wealthy property developer. Jay is extremely privileged as he has money, education, as well as the opportunity to do what he wanted. But he too honored family obligations. As such he was connected to his father’s business by running a large resort hotel in faraway Jaipur.

Jay and Trishna cross paths a few times and we know that Jay is strongly attracted to her. We also know that Jay is something of a layabout who partied, smoked ganja, and went clubbing whenever he wanted.

An auto accident happens involving both Trishna and her father. The family jeep, the entire family’s sole source of income is wrecked in the accident. Trishna suffers a broken arm, and her father had serious injuries. Jay becomes aware of this and offers Trishna a job at his hotel in Jaipur. The pay is 2500 rupees a week, not much by our standards but a vast increase over the money Trishna earned as a day laborer working on local farms or as a part-time dancer at the hotel.

Besides the job, Jay offered to pay her tuition for some courses at a university in Jaipur. With on site employee housing, and making more than enough money to support her family, Trishna accepts the job. Intimacy soon follows and we aren’t quite sure if this was decision made by Trishna or not. But Jay is also bound by his class values, so he cannot conduct a relationship with Trishna openly. Trishna cannot be seen in an intimate relationship either.

Circumstances change (I shall omit the details) and Jay asks Trishna to accompany him to Mumbai, where no one would care if they lived openly as a couple (married or not). Trishna shyly agrees.

It seems obvious that despite their vast differences (cultural, financial and educational) that their relationship could work. Jay was deeply and passionately attracted to the beautiful Trishna. She welcomed the opportunities now offered to her in Mumbai. She enrolled in a dance school, she and Jay lived in a luxury apartment overlooking the sea. Their future seemed bright.

But circumstances would change again, and Jay had to return to Jaipur and the hotel business. Trishna had no choice but to return to Jaipur with Jay, and their committed relationship as equals (in the Mumbai apartment) changed back to that of employer/employee.

That is about as far as I can take you in outlining the plot. I thought the film was engrossing, had great visuals especially for someone like me who has not traveled in India. Winterbottom frequently used montages of cityscapes, countrysides, seascapes, as well as morning sunrises or evening sunsets. His India, especially in Rajasthan was filled with color. The saris, and the bangles, and the head wrappings (dupattas) worn by the women loomed boldly against the counter-point of the chaotic and noisy cities with their congested crowd scenes, the endless traffic, and the neon.

The heat and dust of Ossian, Trishna’s home town was played off against the ancient and beautiful city of Jaipur, with its castles, and forts, and Moghul architecture where we might see monkeys or peacocks at any time. I thought that the use of the many montages were because the script was not dialogue rich. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.

Which suited Trishna’s character and background. Her character was quiet and reserved, even deferential which was also a cause of the relational changes between Jay and Trishna.

Jay was more garrulous and outgoing. He was so because he grew up in the home of a successful businessman whose success was as much a result of the family’s wealth as it was due to the charms of his father. Jay’s father was played by Roshan Seth who I remember from Richard Attenborough‘s Gandhi (1982). In that film he played Jawaharlal (Panditji) Nehru, a leader in the Indian independence movement. Seth’s performance in Trishna is measured not in octaves but in cadence, and was most enjoyable.

In the Hardy novel, Tess had two males who were the main antagonists, Angel and Alec. In Winterbottom’s film, he has combined the two into one – the character of Jay. It isn’t as if Jay possesses two identities; he’s not two men. Instead his character has the qualities of a merged Alec and Angel. People who have read the Hardy novel may indeed find this problematic. However I’ve not read the novel so this wasn’t a problem for me. Clearly I carried no preconceptions about the film before seeing it.

One could say that Pinto’s Trishna was too inwardly focused. That she didn’t show enough on the surface. Or one could dismiss that and say that Pinto’s Trishna was merely the representation of her upbringing and status.

Jay, as performed by Riz Ahmed, is also a bit of a puzzle. Upon his return with Trishna to the hotel in Jaipur, his options are limited. Jay hasn’t much to do, the hotel runs itself. So Jay’s days are nothing more than issuing commands to the hotel staff, or more accurately described, he hasn’t much to do.

As we watch the relationship changing, we kind of side with Trishna because she’s more enigmatic, we can’t hear what she’s thinking or feeling, we can only try to understand it from her reactions. Jay, on the other hand, also says little, but we are clearly able to get his measure because of how his life and their relationship changes from attraction to lovers to individuals living equally in Bombay. Back in Jaipur, the relationship changes completely, as does the texture of their physical and sexual encounters.

I’m going to recommend the film, and rate it at four point zero on a scale of one to five. It has recently opened in the US at just a handful of theaters. The DVD has not been made available here in the US at this time (I bought mine on eBay from a vendor in England) and Netflix is not offering the film currently. But keep it in mind and watch for the DVD.

Have a look at the trailer below.