Rape ambiguity in India


Trishna (MA). Director: Michael Winterbottom. Starring: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed. 113 minutes

Did he rape her or not? The first 'phase' of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles ends with a sexual encounter between the materially poor, doomed heroine Tess and her well-to-do, sleazy suitor Alec. The scene, veiled in euphemism, is ambiguous, though the sinister tone and Tess' subsequent psychological decline do support the accepted interpretation that the encounter was not consensual.

Prolific UK auteur Michael Winterbottom's somewhat loose adaptation of Tess is even more obscure about the nature of this pivotal event. With Trishna he relocates the story to modern-day India and, intriguingly, snowballs the novel's two male leads (the villainous Alec and the somewhat more sympathetic Angel) into one: Jay (Ahmed), the English-raised son of a wealthy Indian hotel owner and businessman.

Jay is infatuated with Trishna (Pinto) from the first moment he sees her, working at a hotel he is visiting with his yobbish friends. He later goes to her house and observes her family's financial hardship (her father was recently incapacitated in a car accident). Playing saviour, he gets her a job at one of his father's hotels, and begins trying to woo her. He does all this with the dispassionate admiration of one seeking to purchase a new leather sofa.

They do have sex, but whether or not the encounter was consensual, Winterbottom is not inclined to tell us outright; the camera cuts away. Certainly the power imbalance in the relationship makes such an encounter ethically dubious even if it was not strictly rape. This could account for Trishna's traumatised escape for a time back to her family. In any case, the event has repercussions that unfold throughout the rest of the film.

In Hardy's novel, Tess is led from this point into tragedy, by desperation and by the weight of societal and parental expectations. Trishna experiences these things too, but by comparison she seems to have greater control of her destiny. The question of the rape, then, remains a problem, as it has some bearing on the degree of sympathy we ultimately feel for her. Was this a path she chose, or was it forced upon her?

Certainly if it was rape, it is inconceivable that she later becomes Jay's willing lover. He seduces her with a promise of a big-city life in Mumbai, and, incongruously, they appear to be happy for a while. Jay though is increasingly vapid and selfish, which makes his hold over Trishna even more of a mystery. It could be that his power and her powerlessness within this society are so innate that they are beyond the bounds of perception.

Winterbottom associates Jay's material amplitude with inactivity, which stands in stark contrast to Trishna's incessant busyness. While we frequently see her engaged in some form of physical labour, his responsibilities as a hotel manager seem to involve a lot of lying on a couch with a book. When he dabbles in film production, his role seems to entail lounging in a chair, observing lazily (a colleague quips that Jay's job is 'having a rich father').

Eventually Jay's lethargy assumes the proportions of an existential malaise. After another prolonged separation from Trishna, prompted by Jay's double standard about the nature of fidelity, he returns and asks her to be with him. The catch is that he is on his way to run one of his father's hotels, where she would have to work for him as a maid and would once more be relegated from being his girlfriend to being his dirty little secret. She accepts.

Trisha hits a new stride at this point. Most of their trysts during the final harrowing act occur after Trishna, in uniform, has delivered lunch to Jay, her employer. This is an ingenious plot device, as it subtly links sex to service; Trishna's final transition from lover to unwitting prostitute is thus almost imperceptible. The tragic outcomes of this are grippingly, shockingly portrayed by the gutsy and emotionally authentic Pinto. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Trishna, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, Michael Winterbottom



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Existing comments

Another film of super melodramatic nonsensical histrionics about sex. Why can't Eureka St give some reviews of movies that are suitable for Catholic viewing?

Trent | 17 May 2012  

I lived in India 1974-75 mainly travelling from Ashram to Ashram. The aim was to get my head straight after serving as an officer in Vietnam 1964, 1966-67. Women in India are at social and cultural disadvantage. If they have sex outside of marriage they are ostracised and pariahs. I hope to see this film. I have seen many like it. Two issues seem to be the focus. 1. Total dependence on males whether married or unmarried. 2. The psychological phenomenon of the "Hilton complex", where a female, abducted by terrorists becomes the lover of her tormentors and eventually becomes a terrorist too. In a similar way, leaders of a religious cult can captivate a female to the extent they are willing (?) sex slaves. I witnessed this phenomena a number of times in the seclusion of a "spiritually directed" Ashram. As a psychologist (1980-2007) I also witnessed in 'battered' female clients a "compulsion" to return to the husband/partner responsible for sometimes terrible physical injuries. It is good to see films that bring this to public attention. Identification hopefully develops awareness - then 'treatment' (?).

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 17 May 2012  

An excellent review of what appears to be an excellent film, Tim. Indians are, of course, fascinated by Nineteenth Century English Literature. Why do you think they've produced so many great writers? Because their English speaking elite still grow up on them. So this "Indianisation" of "Tess" by a Brit would please them. Unequal power due to wealth and status was at the tragic core of many Hardy novels. If, in the Indian version, the power differential were based on caste, it could make the film even more heartbreaking. I suspect, given the wealth, power and role differential caste could be seen as part of it. Indians would understand. The rape/non-consensual sex line is sometimes not completely clear. It also shows us sexual exploitation in the Third World. The same thing has happened in workplaces in contemporary Australia. Catholics need to know about this. Do we keep all the sordid facts about the real world from Catholics "to keep them pure"? Is "Trishna" likely to corrupt a good Catholic schoolgirl? Highly unlikely, I think. It shows them how a world unredeemed by genuine, deep religion (the sort Christ taught) can be a dreadful place. That knowledge may forewarn and help arm them. Surely the film could be discussed, with benefit, in Religious Studies classes?

Edward F | 17 May 2012  

Thanks Tim. I have recently seen 'Trishna' and read "Tess .." many years ago. I concur with your critique and also appreciated Karl and Edward's comments. As a secondary school teacher in a Catholic girls' school I would have no hesitation in showing Senior students (with parents' permission) this film in the context of an appropriate unit in either RE or English. The film, as does the novel on which it is based, raises serious moral and social issues which my students would explore with maturity and sensitivity within the context of a Christian education.

Tony W | 17 May 2012  

It worries me slightly that ambiguity about whether she was raped or not runs very close to titillating the viewer, and may feed into the idea that rape is just a different level of seduction; seduction with bells on? That is not to say that an encounter should be explicitly shown, either. Of course, there are other situations of ambiguity. Take prostitution for example, which is mentioned at the end of your review, Tim. It's not rape at all, but neither is it based on mutual desire. While I believe it needs to be legal (to provide some safety for the worker) it is part of an economy where men believe they have a right to enter a woman's body regardless of her desire. The line between tacky and violent is not so very obvious, (though that's an important distinction to hold to; it's better than nothing, in such a crappy world.) Trent, if I send you a copy of The Sound of Music will you stop saying Catholics shouldn't watch this? All you do is make me feel smug I'm Anglican. (Now there's a first.)

Penelope | 19 May 2012  

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