Few things in life I fear more than a "chick flick". The idea of being trapped in a theater with endless variations of "The Notebook" is a unique form of emotional manipulation torture that would crack even the hardest Navy Seal into submission. So before I come up against any sort of lethal beast as this I very carefully vet the situation. It paid off handsomely at last year's Asian film festival with "Love In A Puff", a delightful, charming film I deeply enjoyed.
For this year's annual running with the chicks I chose Trishna. I was a bit lazy vetting Trishna but nonetheless showed up at the theater feeling fairly confident. After the first several minutes I felt safe with its honesty and I was patting myself on the back. Then came the horror of horrors: I was watching a Bollywood film!
India's Bollywood for the uninitiated is chick flicks on steroids, plenty of singing and dancing, so-called romance and a deep reverence for societal structure. Seen one, you've seen 'em all. And I've seen one (full blown musical). I gripped my seat in terror like a helpless heroine tied to the train tracks - and I just heard the train whistle blow. Luckily, my fears were unfounded - for the most part.
Trishna is from a small village where she stumbles across some big city boys sightseeing. It's interesting to note the male lead was Indian but apparently grew up in London, never bothering to learn Hindi. I figured out why he was given this background: this Bollywood film breaks all the rules.
The plotline of the full blown Bollywood movie I saw was of two young lovers ripped apart by an arranged marriage by their parents. They vow (in freaking song) to reunite against all odds but in the end the heroine comes to believe her arranged husband is the man for her after all. Basically a propaganda film for traditional Indian mores and parental obsequience. Disgusting. But Trishna blows those values out of the water - or so I thought at first.
Forced by her father's sudden injury to seek income, Trishna takes a job at a large resort hotel at the behest of the London raised boy whose father owns the hotel. Not only is Trishna moving physically, but spiritually as she begins to explore her own life and own wishes. "Alright!" I mentally applauded. "You go girl!"
London Boy takes her virginity in a romantic night but it's too much for Trishna as she flees back home. There she discovers she's pregnant and is forced to have an abortion by her father. Then she's sent to her uncle's tea farm for virtual enslavement in manual labor. Back to zero all over again. But London Boy can't get her out of his mind, finds her and asks her to come with him to Bombay after telling his father the hotel business is not for him.
"Will you do it? Will you come with me?"
She's on a five minute break from her job. You hear the factory in the background. "Yes. Yes, I will! I'll come right now."
"Don't you need to say something to them inside?"
"No, they wouldn't let me go then."
Oh, I'm loving this now! Independent lady after my own heart. By following her own desires, by making a commitment to her life, Trishna blossoms in Bombay. London Boy hangs around with an artsy, filmmaking crowd complete with dancers and directors. They are funny and liberal and full of life. With her flame of life blazing, Trishna is a natural fit with her own lively dancing as she's even invited to become a professional. (I have to admit her dancing was intoxicating, what little we got to see).
But life is never this easy, is it? Even with her commendable behavior, Trishna has yet to take the final step of committing herself to her life. London Boy's father has a stroke, he must return to take over the hotel. Trishna does not have the strength to say no to returning to the suffocating hotel life. She keeps her dream of becoming a professional dancer a secret as London Boy would disapprove. It all goes downhill from there.
London Boy is miserable running the hotel. Trishna has to pretend to be a mere employee because living together is something they could get away with in the city but not in the rural setting of the resort. She delivers his lunch to him each day where he ravishes her. But over time, it gets uglier and uglier. He humiliates her, both formally and sexually, taking out all his boredom and misery on her. In the end, their sex brings her to tears, borderline rape (due no doubt to London Boy's foreign upbringing).
And here's where the film and I part ways. We both agree she must free herself. But running back to Bombay to stay with her friends and make the final step to being her own person does not seem an option. No, the only way out is to take a large butcher knife from the kitchen, stab London Boy to death and flee back home as the obvious culprit. After a few fruitless days she realizes her life is over and actually commits seppuku with the same knife she killed London Boy. Ouch!
So in the end we still get the same Bollywood cautionary tale that following your own bliss is dangerous and deadly! Had they given this film an honest ending it would have been outstanding, displaying the trials and tribulations of finding oneself but also showing the rewards. People were muttering on the way out. "I expected something lighter." It's still a great film to see, though, to observe the various cross sections of Indian life from poverty to luxury.
In the end I just have a few words of advice. Dear India: Follow your own bliss. You're almost there!