Based on Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Trishna tells the story of a woman whose life is destroyed by the restrictions of social status, complications of love and life, and her development as an individual. Set in contemporary Rajasthan, Trishna (Freida Pinto) meets a wealthy British businessman, Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), who has come to India to work in his father's hotel business. He sees her dancing at a hotel, and is attracted to her beauty and innocence.
After an accident destroys her father's Jeep and leaves her family without the means to support themselves, Trishna, approached with an offer of employment from Jay, accepts and begins her work beneath him.
Jay develops feelings for Trishna, expressing them through special treatment and gifts. She is overwhelmed by his generosity and his position of power, and does not know how to respond. After a night out with friends, Jay tracks her down and rescues her from the unwanted and escalating attentions of two men on the street. However, instead of taking her back to the servant quarters of the hotel, he stops in a wooded area and makes an advance. He rapes her, and she comes back from their encounter crying heavily. She flees the next morning back to her family. An unwanted pregnancy results from the rape, and Trishna has an abortion, hoping to put the entire episode behind her and continue in her family as if she'd never left. However, her father's shame at her pregnancy and the family's need for income means that she is sent to work for her aunt and uncle, serving her bed-bound aunt and also working in the small factory her uncle runs. To her dismay, Jay tracks her down again and seems surprised that she has not tried to contact him; due to his own abusive, self-indulgent tendencies, he views the rape as a consensual sexual experience. He offers her the opportunity to be his live-in girlfriend in Mumbai, and Trishna chooses to go with him, escaping the drudgery of factory work to start life again with Jay in the city.
In Bombay, Trishna gets to accompany Jay to events relating to the film industry, in which he is interested in investing as a producer. She begins dance classes, and is strikingly good, but Jay refuses to allow her to pursue dancing as a career. He tries to convince her (and seems to succeed) that she does not want to be a dancer and that she is to stay at his side. Their relationship has settled into an arrangement when Jay suddenly has to leave for England, where his father is in hospital after having a stroke. Shocked by the brush with mortality, Jay feels ever closer to Trishna, and confesses having had feelings with two other women in their social circles before she moved in with him. Feeling a level of trust with her patron/boyfriend, Trishna confesses to Jay that after their first sexual encounter, she became pregnant and had an abortion. He reacts by asking her why she didn't think he had a right to know and gets progressively angry when he thinks of all the times she could have told him about it. With difficulties at their highest, Jay abandons Trishna and stops paying the lease on their apartment. Trishna – having heard nothing from Jay –- joins some of her friends from dance class in their apartment. To her surprise Jay returns to meet her, though he pretends it was all a misunderstanding and that she should have told him that the lease was not being paid. Meanwhile, she has learned from a rather greasy dance coordinator, that to begin a career as a dancer, she'd have to spend 30,000 rupees on a special card, money the dance co-ordinator offers to loan her. Stuck between going into debt with a stranger and the 'better the evil you know' Jay, she chooses to return to Jay. His father's incapacitated state means Jay has to leave the city and go back to the idyllic hotel in Rajasthan. He offers her a job at his hotel where he promises to maintain their relationship in secret.
Due to their professional relationship, Jay treats her as a servant in public, which adds some titillating thrill to their encounters for him. But Jay's boredom, frustration, and return to an extremely dominant position exacerbates the power dynamic that already plagued their interactions. Jay's desire for control becomes ever more overt. He begins to imagine himself as the raja of this hotel that was once a castle, taking up residence in the rooms the ruler had once occupied. He becomes increasingly abusive and sexually coercive, until Trishna becomes a mere object for his exploitation. Trishna, her spirit destroyed and her hopes for opportunity in tatters, takes a kitchen knife and, while Jay is sleeping, stabs him to death as he wakes and looks at her in surprise.
Trishna escapes and returns to the village with her family, where at first she appears to be leading a normal life, but in the tragic climax Trishna finds an isolated spot and commits suicide by stabbing herself with the same kitchen knife used to kill Jay.
The film was produced by Winterbottom's production company Revolution Films in co-production with Film i Väst and Bob Film Sweden, and in association with Anurag Kashyap Films. It received financial support from the UK Film Council and the Swedish Film Institute. Filming took place in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Trishna received mixed reviews. David Gritten in the Daily Telegraph wrote that, "The film looks splendid, and its incisive score by Shigeru Umebayashi, with a lovely mournful waltz theme, propels the story all the way to its unhappy climax. Yet Trishna feels faintly unsatisfying, leaving a sense of opportunities missed and details not quite thought through." Film critic Roger Ebert wrote "Winterbottom is a director who never repeats himself, films all over the world, and in "Trishna," effortlessly embeds his story in modern India". Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal thought that the film was "spectacular visually, though awfully somber dramatically". By September 2014 it had a 65% score on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
The film was nominated for Best Film at the London Film Festival, for Tokyo Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and for Politiken's Audience Award at CPH:PIX in Copenhagen.