Based on Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the D’Ubervilles, master filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s newest film stars Freida Pinto who soars as Trishna in her most revealing performance yet. Trishna lives with her family in a village in Rajasthan, India’s largest state. As the eldest daughter, she works in a nearby resort to help pay the bills. Jay (Riz Ahmed, FOUR LIONS) is the wealthy son of a property developer. When he takes up managing a resort at his father’s request, he meets Trishna at a dance and their fates cross.
Director Michael Winterbottom sat down to talk about his latest film TRISHNA in the interview below.
A: We tried to make TRISHNA back in 2004 and our casting director went to India to look for someone who could play the title role, but she didn’t find anyone. It was only when we thought of Freida (Pinto) and Riz (Ahmed) playing the roles that we started over again.
Q: This marks your third time filming in India?
A: It is the third time that I have filmed in India but this is the first film I have made that is set in India. We did a few days filming on Code 46 – but that was mixed in with locations in China and Dubai. And we shot the interiors on A Mighty Heart in India, but the rest of that film was shot in Pakistan – where the story took place. It was frustrating working in India in the past, and not actually telling a story that is set there. So this was a totally different experience. We were able to locate the story in a very specific place. We spent a lot of time talking to people in Rajasthan – and specifically in Osian and Jodhpur – about the story, and how it would make sense in their lives. And in the end we found a family whose father drives a Jeep – the Jeep we use in the film – and we used them and their house and so on – and inserted our characters into their world. Then when Jay and Trishna move to Mumbai they are on the fringe of the Bollywood industry. So, the people we were working with, like Anurag Kashyap and Amit Trivedi, their world became the world within our film.
Q: Had India changed since you last worked there?
A: Certainly Rajasthan had changed from when we worked there in 2003. The biggest visible change was that there was a lot more irrigation. There had also been more rain in the area than last time we were there. But a lot of farmers now irrigate, so where there was only desert before, you now see fields of vegetables. And we came across a lot of schools where they have made a big effort to make sure that all the children – boys and girls – stayed on at school until they were sixteen or so.
Q: What were the big changes you made to the story?
A: Well the biggest I guess was in combining two characters into one. In Tess there are Angel and Alec, the spiritual versus the sensual. I think most people are a combination of both. And having worked with Riz before I thought he was capable of bringing out that complexity in Jay. He does fall in love with Trishna, but he is rich and young and wants immediate gratification. If he stood back, he would realize that the consequences for Trishna of what he does would be huge, whereas he, as a man, and as a rich man, can get away with whatever he likes. Then in terms of context – besides mobility and education and urbanization TRISHNA is also set in a world where international tourism has a big impact. Tourism is a big industry in Rajasthan. It has contradictory effects. It provides opportunities for work and careers. The other characters in our film who work in the hotels – Rita, Chanchal and Manisha are played by people who do work in tourism. They are young, college-educated articulate women who hope to have a good career. But tourism also recreates a sort of neocolonialism where rich westerners can live in palaces and be waited on hand and foot. This has an echo in the original story.
Alec d’Urberville is the son of a factory owner from the north of England who has come south and bought an old manor house and is pretending to be aristocratic. Jay’s father has done the same. Having made his money in property in England, he has returned to India to buy up some of his country’s heritage. Jay, like Alec, is the son who has had it too easy. He’s been spoilt by not having to work or to make his own way in the world. Trishna is the opposite. She has the burden not only of looking after herself, but also her family. Another change is that in Hardy’s story Tess gives birth to a child, who dies. Researching in Rajasthan, everyone told us that if an unmarried girl got pregnant the family would want to try and get an abortion before any other people became aware that she was pregnant.
Q: How were Freida and Riz to work with?
A: They were both fantastic to work with. I’d worked with Riz before on THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO. So I knew that he knew what to expect. We work with quite a small crew, on real locations, with a lot of non-actors and a lot of improvisation. Riz is a very intelligent actor. I think this is the first time he’s really played a leading man kind of role, a romantic lead, and he really stepped up to the mark. You have to be able to like Jay, and at the same time see his weaknesses. Freida was lovely to work with. Trishna is a huge role – she’s in almost every scene – she goes from working in fields to dancing in Bollywood and back again. So it is a big journey. She is the centre of the film. Hardy is always pointing out that Tess is opaque, passive, a canvas on which Angel and Alec paint their own different fantasies, until finally she acts. I think Freida has that great ability to make you want to watch her, to imagine what is going on inside her head. Jay imagines she is simpler than she is. That is what destroys their relationship and leads to her final rebellion.
Q: Would you call this a Bollywood film?
A: No. But there are similarities between Hardy’s storytelling and traditional Bollywood material. This is a melodrama, a love story, the story of a poor girl falling in love with a rich man and being carried away. It’s also set partly in Mumbai where Jay wants to make films. We had a close collaboration with Anurag Kashyap and his film company who are making a kind of new wave of films, working in Bollywood, but telling stories their own way. Like a Bollywood film we use a lot of music. We have four songs by Amit Trivedi – a very successful composer in Mumbai – and also a beautiful soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi who did the score for In The Mood For Love, and of course we have lots of dancing. So the film has one foot in Bollywood – and it has already been bought to be released in India .
Q: Trishna is torn between tradition and her own dreams and ambitions. With the speed at which India is changing, how do you think the new India that’s emerging will ultimately change the lives of women like Trishna in the coming years?
A: One of the sights that you notice straight away is groups of children at dawn or just after setting off for their school, often walking several kilometres to get there. We visited a lot of schools in and around Osian during the preproduction period of TRISHNA. All the schools we visited were making a big effort to encourage boys and girls to stay on at school at least to 10th grade, but often to 12th grade and college afterwards. I think there is a realization that education is important. So people like Pratiksh, Leela and Lakshman, the children playing Trishna’s brothers and sisters, all want a good education. At a different level Minakshi, Manisha and Chanchal, the women playing the hotel workers whom Trishna meets, they’ve all been to college and have got a job and want a career and see the tourism industry as one route to a career that can provide interesting work and a good salary. So the situation for women in Rajasthan is changing. But when society is changing individuals can suffer. Trishna can see the possibilities for a life that wouldn’t have been there for her mother, but these hopes and dreams are the very thing that leads to her tragedy.
Q: What are the day-to-day logistical challenges of shooting in India?
A: I’ve worked in India twice before and I think on those occasions it has been the most difficult country that I have filmed in. For all sorts of reasons. But on this shoot things went pretty smoothly, especially in Rajasthan. We worked with a local location manager and shot in a lot of locations which you might expect to be difficult, but we had really great co-operation from the people in Osian and Jodhpur and Jaipur and Samode. Everyone was incredibly generous and helpful and to be honest we didn’t have that many nightmares. Mumbai was harder, but that is just the nature of a big city.
Q: You’ve worked with Riz before, but not with Freida – how did you prepare for the shoot with the actors?
A: I worked with Riz ON THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO and I think that was his first acting job. So I knew that he would be right for the part of Jay. The only preparation we had was talking in England about the role, because he came straight from the set of Black Gold to Rajasthan. With Freida we had a little more time. She came to Rajasthan and met people working in the hotels. She spent a bit of time with a couple of families which we thought were similar to Trishna’s. She practised her dancing. All the practical things she needed to play the role.
Q: Riz said Jay is ‘bewitched’ by Trishna at the beginning and Freida is equally bewitching on screen. What is it about her that brings that quality? How does she work on a day-to-day basis?
A: Well obviously Freida is very beautiful. So that helps. But she is also very straightforward, very easy to work with. Very sympathetic. And all these qualities were important for Trishna. But in Hardy’s story it is important that you don’t know exactly what she is feeling or thinking. There is an opaque quality, an enigmatic quality. I think Freida pulls this off very well. So we have to guess what is going on in her head. And sometimes to be frustrated by her passivity. In terms of Freida’s technique you’d have to ask her. For me it is just a case of watching what an actor is doing on set and adjusting it if i think it is necessary.