Freida Pinto will be seen on the big screen once again. This time she’ll be starring in Michael Winterbottom film, Trishna.
Based on Thomas Hardy’s classic “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s newest film is set in contemporary India. Freida plays the role as the title character, Trishna, an auto-rickshaw driver’s daughter who falls for a rich boy named Jay (Riz Ahmed).
Trishna is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will release on Friday, July 20, in additional U.S. cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington D.C.
Pinto sat down to talk about her latest film Trishna in the interview below.
Q: Take us through the process of how you became involved in the project. What attracted you to it and to the role of Trishna?
A: When I was told that Michael Winterbottom would like to meet me to discuss his new film project, I obviously jumped on the opportunity. He is one of those rare directors who makes films by boldly attempting and embracing any given genre. I was already familiar with Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the idea of having it set in contemporary India was absolutely brilliant and apt. I was pining to sink my teeth into a hardcore independent project and Trishna came along.
Q: Who is Trishna?
A: According to our story, Trishna is the nineteen year-old daughter of a rickshaw driver. Since she’s had a taste of a little education, she doesn’t entirely conform or fit into the traditional mould of thinking that her parents belong to. She leaves school and works at a hotel near her hometown of Ossian in Rajasthan to bring more money into the household. She is, however, determined to ensure that her younger siblings are given a good English middle school education. That’s something that she wishes she could have continued as well. She meets Jay while working at the hotel and falls in love with him and has a sometimes blissful, but mostly tumultuous relationship with him, which eventually leads us into their tragedy.
Q: Tell us about Trishna’s personal journey.
A: Trishna for me, is the epitome of purity and suffering. Her journey can be divided into the three phases within the film. The first is her mundane family life in Ossian which starts changing only after she meets Jay. An unspoken passionate tension and subtle seduction rule this phase. The second phase is what I called “the Happy Phase” where both Jay and Trishna get temporary freedom from everything class-related, where they can just enjoy being together, uninhibited, in the city of Mumbai. They really discover each other during this time and are passionately in love. This is where Trishna, although she misses her family, is a lot more relaxed with Jay. The last phase is the most complex one of the story where Trishna has to face the inevitability of her fate with Jay and the fact that she would never be able to rise from her social class/status to be on the same level as him. In a way she would always have to submit to him in society. However, in their private moments while the love still exists, it slowly turns into sadistic torture especially for Trishna, which she swallows as a bitter pill. Finally, she is pushed over the edge and that’s when she decides she cannot take it anymore. Trishna is constantly torn between her desire to adopt Jay’s modernism and urbanity – which to some extent she does, and the traditional family values and rural roots that she finds hard to ignore. Therein lies her conflict. She does find it very liberating when Jay comes back looking for her and takes her to Mumbai. But there’s a certain sadness in the fact that she never fully fits into that setting but is nonetheless happy to try. When Jay finally takes her back to Rajasthan after finding out that she has been hiding a secret from him, she is in a way made to accept the unfairness that she has always been subjected to. To sum up her journey throughout the film in short, she’s almost there but never really there.
Q: Tell us about her relationship with Jay.
A: Jay in our film is the embodiment of both Angel and Alec in Hardy’s novel. Trishna’s purity is alluring to Jay but it’s that very quality he ends up exploiting in his Alec phase. It’s a very passionate relationship filled with sexual tension, awe and a certain admiration for each other. But they are almost like each other’s forbidden fruit. Trishna would probably only dream of falling in love with someone like Jay and only in her wildest dreams would she ever imagine it to be a reciprocal feeling. There is a lot of shyness and passivity in the way she handles her side of the relationship with him never knowing how much she could actually open up. So when she finally does tell him about the pregnancy, his image of her being a symbol of “ultimate purity” comes down like a house of cards and they move into a very sadistic phase of their relationship where she continues to be even more passive which irks Jay further and in turn he keeps provoking her to get her to react. It’s a doomed romance.
Q: How different was the shooting experience and working with Michael, compared to your other films?
A: Michael has a very distinctive style of filming. He is not afraid of getting his hands dirty in a way that he can be fully involved in the story and encourages and expects us to do the same. He also has an optimism that is absolutely admirable but also quite intense. He knew I didn’t speak Marvadi at all but somehow thought since I spoke Hindi I would be able to speak and improvise in Marvadi as well. It obviously scared the living delights out of me and forced me to find a method to pick up the language in less than 20 days! I didn’t have a dialect coach on set so I had to prepare myself fully for whatever could be thrown at me. I think in that sense, he expected our homework to be thorough and for us to be as prepared as he always is. That quality made me think a lot more independently as an actor and to be able to make the set more organic rather than contrived. He likes working with a very intimate set – very few people where you don’t feel like it’s a movie set. He is very flexible and invites the actors to come up with their own ideas to enhance the scenes. Every film has had its own unique and wonderful experience but this is what is unique about Michael.
Q: What sort of preparation and research did you do and what other skills did you have to learn? You do a lot of dancing…
A: Oh yes – the dancing! I accompanied one of the crew members on a recce a month before we started filming to get a better sense of the culture I was going to dive into. It’s obviously not enough to just be an Indian to play this character. Rajasthan is vastly different from Mumbai. I met a lot of families, young girls working at hotels, recorded videos and audio tapes, went to local schools, spoke to students there and got interesting insights on their dreams and aspirations and the hurdles they come across in accomplishing those dreams. For me, my research consisted of studying people. I was not playing Tess in England or Mumbai, so I had to keep it as authentic to the Rajasthani setting as possible. In terms of skills, I learnt to speak a bit of Marvadi and of course learning the traditional Rajasthani dance moves was fun. Can milking cows and goats also be considered a skill? I think yes!
Q: The role of Trishna is huge and required flexibility and versatility, which you excelled at. What were the biggest challenges and biggest joys of the shoot?
A: It has been by far my biggest and most demanding role and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The biggest challenge was adopting Trishna’s passivity which is not necessarily her strength or weakness, it is both. Many times Michael had to remind me during certain scenes not to respond and join in every conversation but rather be the observer and absorber. That’s very difficult for a chatty girl like me who is always ready with a response! But through the course of the filming process it started falling into place – the frustration, the internalisation of the pain she feels that ultimately pushes her over the edge. For me it was almost like her passivity was a must to understanding her suffering. Working with a team that introduced a guerilla style of filmmaking to me was a complete joy and I cannot say I wasn’t ready for it. I was more than happy to embrace it. The simplicity of our living conditions in Ossian made it easier for me to feel closer to Trishna. I found it very interesting that we didn’t just work with professional actors.
Don’t forget to catch Freida Pinto on Conan O’Brien‘s popular late night talk show Conan where she will discuss her new film, Trishna, tonight (July 19th) at 11:00PM ET on TBS.