From 19th Century England to 21st Century India, director Michael Winterbottom and actress Freida Pinto talk about bringing Thomas Hardy’s story of tradition and modernization, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, into a rich and new light with Trishna.
When acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom first brought Thomas Hardy to the screen in 1996 with Jude (Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s last novel), he went with a straight-forward and faithful adaptation. But with Tess, Winterbottom wanted more than what a conventional period film could convey. “You can’t really get that sense of modernity or change or progress… or even social issues generally into a period film,” says Winterbottom. “It just becomes this sort of picturesque story of individuals, very hard to get a sense of society in a period film.”
Pinto, who was first introduced to Tess as an English Lit major in college, feels that although the film differs from the novel in many significant ways, there are elements of the original that resonate and stay true within the film. “In terms of the themes and also the feel that the film has– It feels very, very similar to Tess of the d’Urbevilles, especially my character,” says Pinto. “I felt Trishna was as loyal as possible to Tess.”
Winterbottom saw that the shift to present day rural Rajasthan is actually not as far-reaching as it seems. In fact, there are fundamental parallels. “When I was in Osian I thought actually that a lot of the changes that are happening in rural Indian society are very similar to the changes Hardy talks about,” says Winterbottom. “He’s talking about people who get caught between the old stable rural world and the modern world.”
The director did however make meaningful changes, like the decision to omit a lover from the equation. “Hardy’s got two men– there’s a sensual lover, Alec, and a spiritual lover, Angel,” he explains. “Hardy knew that most people have a sensual side and a spiritual side, but chose to divide them to make black and white characters […] I decided it would good to merge those two characters in Jay.”
After speaking to locals in Rajasthan the director felt compelled to change another major detail in the novel. In the film Trishna becomes pregnant, but terminates the pregnancy. “When we talked to people in Rajasthan everyone said that if your daughter got pregnant outside marriage they would have an abortion, which I hadn’t expected,” says Winterbottom.
Winterbottom, who has directed a wide range of films from Welcome to Sarajevo to Code 46 to last year’s The Trip, wanted to bring Trishna into realization several years ago, but let the project sit for a while when the casting director could not find the right girl to portray Trishna. Years later when the same casting director suggested Freida Pinto, hope was reborn. “But, then it was also meeting her, especially because we’re working with nonprofessional actors, and the script–the film is kind of improvised, and we’re working with a small crew; its low budget,” explains the director. “You have to find someone who you think will be great for the part, but also who will want to work in that way and will be able to work in that way, especially for a character like Trishna who is quite passive and quite modest. You need someone who is willing to do that, […] and not be the person who is not doing all the big acting or doing all the things that sort of drive a scene.”
Freida Pinto was their Trishna, but her portrayal would not be effortless. “Just because I am Indian, I couldn’t confidently say ‘Oh, I can play Trishna. It’s easy-peasy,’” explains Pinto. I couldn’t do that. I had to do a lot more research than I did on Slumdog.”
First of all she had to learn the local Rajashtani dialect. In fact, filming in Rajasthan exposed the Bombayite to a whole other India. “Rajishtan is completely different,” says Pinto. “It’s almost like a whole new world, so even though I went back to India in some strange way it felt like I was in foreign land. “
Then, there was the challenge (and reward) of working with many nonprofessional actors.
“What was amazing about Michael putting us in that situation was that instead of them playing with us, we had to play with them, which automatically made it more real. It was challenging at times, because you wanted them to say something so that you could get the information that you wanted to get out in that scene. You wanted to put it out there, so you expect them to say something to you, but it wouldn’t come out, so it would challenge you to think of different of ways of exploring that and finding a way to reach that situation.”
Winterbottom points out that Pinto delved into several new worlds, not just one, because her character lives in several different cities, where she leads different lives. “She had to kind of get to know all these different worlds that Trishna’s supposed to be part of and work with people who were genuinely from that world, more than actors.”
And, of course there is the sexuality. Sex scenes are abundant and vary from romantic to brutal. For Pinto, the challenge was less about how much skin she was showing, than connecting to the emotions.
“I don’t think the clothing in the sex scenes was the issue. I think the emotional impact of what was the brutality of those scenes was actually more difficult to deal with. Knowing that you’re enacting a rape scene, or the fact of being taken advantage of– or in this case Trishna, the first time she makes love to him she has no idea, because she’s never known what that physical touch from a male feels like– I guess to understand, to grasp that for someone who’s never really thought like her, to grasp that was more difficult than just the dress. Because. I’ve said it before–You’ve seen naked people all around. You don’t care about that; you care about the emotion that goes into it. It’s not like those sex scenes are just meant to titillate. They are sex scenes to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Although Indian culture is conservative in many ways, Winterbottom does not believe that sexuality in the film will offend Indian audiences. “I think we have preconceptions of India as being perhaps somehow not what it is,” explains the director. “Sensuality is part of the Indian culture. Indian films are full of some very sensual scenes of people being in love, and skimpily dressed and having fantastically sensuous dances– that’s part of Indian culture.”
For Freida Pinto, it is encouraging to see the increased exposure to Indian culture and and to see the spectrum of roles for Indian actors and actresses broaden, especially since the success of Slumdog Millionaire. She is also grateful that her background has not defined the kind of roles she is offered or the kind of roles she takes on, often playing characters whose cultural backgrounds are different from hers or altogether ambiguous (Miral, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes). “I have been pretty strong about not wanting to be typecast at all, from the very start of my career,” explains the actress. “I was like ‘Even if it takes me time I feel like I want to set the momentum from the very beginning, so I don’t have to backtrack later on,’ which is the harder thing to do.”
Pinto, not only beautiful, but intelligent, open and enthusiastic, has reason to be excited and optimistic. Since her first feature Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture only three years ago, she starred in several compelling films helmed by directors such as Julian Schnabel and Woody Allen. She continues that streak with Michael Winterbottom, working with an exciting director on a rich and dynamic role. It seems there really could be no better pair to bring life to Trishna.
Trishna was featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.