The maid, the single lady and the courtesan
As Riz Ahmed (playing Jay Singh) puts it to Frieda Pinto in Trishna, “The Kama Sutra says a man can make love to three types of woman: the maid, the single lady or the courtesan. Which one are you?” Through his words, not only does he undermine her role in their relationship and ensnare Trishna yet again in his own web of carnal pleasure, his words also betray the need in society to categorise women, to give them set roles, to make them knowable and therefore easier to subjugate. Like Tess before her, Trishna represents the fall of the pure woman. Winterbottom has done a fine job of illuminating the inflated importance of the innocence and honour of women by transporting Hardy’s 1891 novel to modern day, rural India.
Pinto makes an ideal Trishna - doe-eyed and (dare I say it?) gangly in a kameez, Pinto is able to pull off the look of the village girl. The simplicity and youthfulness of her beauty mirrors the naïveté of the character as well as allowing Trishna to move with ease between Mumbai and the rural life with which she is more comfortable. The first time Ahmed’s character Jay gazes upon Trishna is when she is at the Mandir with her younger siblings and of course, it’s Jay who ends up prising her away from the familiarity of village life, her young and dependent siblings, her family, the morals they have given her and ultimately, her innocence and honour.
As a conflation of Angel and Alec from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jay’s British Asian character is equivocal. At the start of the film, he takes pity on Trishna as well as a liking to her: clearly an interesting mix of feelings which see him taking on both a benevolent and a colonial approach in his dealings with Trishna. Offering her a job when her family is in need, he moves her into his hotel, educates her and exposes her to more of India than she would otherwise have seen. The irreconcilability of their cultural differences however is highlighted when Trishna flees in shame and confusion after Jay seduces her whereas he expresses that he would have been happy for them to remain lovers in secret.
The tragedy of the story comes from the force with which the loss of Trishna’s innocence impacts her life. Once she finds out that she is pregnant, Trishna’s family arrange an efficient abortion and with a distinct lack of emotion, suggest that she moves in with a distant relative. If anything, the subtlest reaction in the family could possibly be the most disturbing, as Trishna’s father is depicted gazing at his fallen daughter with some interest once he finds out that she is no longer pure and naïve. All seems well once Jay finds Trishna, tells her she shouldn’t have run away, and whisks her to the beaches and acting schools of Mumbai, at which point in the film the balmy sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are swapped for pop and Bollywood music. Despite the opportunities and novelties that city life brings, Trishna’s fallen status follows her and continues to thwart her happiness. When Jay eventually finds out from Trishna about the abortion of their baby and therefore her ability to keep secrets, the appeal of her naïve and innocent charm is lost to him and we witness his disintegration from Angel to Alec. Despite his own infidelities and his more liberal cultural background, Jay is unable to maintain his respect for the tainted Trishna, brutally making her a worker in his Rajasthan hotel again and helping himself to her body in the most humiliating terms. What makes his exploitation of her all the more bitter is that too trustingly, she runs away from her relatives to be with Jay and is left without a support system, socially and geographically isolated.
Although some might find Trishna’s inability to assert herself early on in the film deeply frustrating, it’s clear that in many ways, Trishna serves as a symbol for the fate of many women. It’s important for Trishna to remain passive for the duration of others’ judgement of her to reinforce the backbone of the film. Her treatment at the hands of her family and Jay emphasises the fact that in some cultures, moral standards for women are completely untenable, whilst those for men are unambitious to say the least. As a nod to Hardy, Trishna is often seen with a red chunni on her head, ironic since culturally the veil normally serves as a symbol of protected and upheld honour. Like Tess, the association with the colour marks Trishna out as a liminal woman: a marked woman to whom extraordinary, shameful things will happen and who also has a source of extraordinary resilience.
The final montage of the film sees Trishna despairing in the abyss, juxtaposed with her young sister chanting morning prayers at school. While Winterbottom fails to build up the sense of Trishna’s despair which leads to her final major act in the film, the mirroring of the two sisters is poignant nonetheless. It’s no coincidence that there is a ‘Save the Girl Child’ poster visible in the hospital room when Trishna’s termination is taking place: the audience is left to ponder the fate of Trishna’s younger sister given Trishna’s legacy. While the UK may have overcome the extremity of the gender biases that Hardy presented in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it’s clear that there is still work to be done elsewhere. Winterbottom’s work isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a noble attempt at representing the female condition.