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. Jay finds every opportunity to win Trishna’s affection and she accepts his efforts with shy curiosity. But when the two move to Mumbai and become a couple, Jay’s deep family bond threatens the young lovers’ bliss. Shot with Winterbottom’s agile camera, Trishna is a powerful look at the tension between ancient privilege and modern equality, between codes of urban and rural life and ultimately a hymn to both the glory and the tragedy that comes with beauty in all forms.
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. The actress has been invited to appear on Conan O’Brien’s popular late night talk show Conan where she will discuss her new film. It is scheduled to air on Thursday, July 19, at 11:00pm ET on TBS.
Pinto and Ahmed talk about her latest film TRISHNA in the interviews below.
Take us through the process of how you became involved in the project. What attracted you to it and to the role of Trishna? 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.
Who is Trishna? 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 mold 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.
Tell us about Trishna’s personal journey. 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.
Tell us about her relationship with Jay. 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.
How different was the shooting experience and working with Michael, compared to your other films? 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 daylights 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.
What sort of preparation and research did you do and what other skills did you have to learn? You do a lot of dancing… Oh yes, the dancing! I accompanied one of the crew members 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!
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? 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 internalization 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. The family playing Trishna’s family in the film were a real Rajasthani family from Ossian (except for those playing my mother and father). It was like the saying “go with the flow” for most part, but with an obvious direction.
How was it working with Riz? There is something absolutely earthy and raw about the way he performs. He takes every moment as it is given to him; he feels it inside out and delivers with impact. He can be very hard on himself sometimes but that’s the way he functions. I believe that’s his way of pushing himself to do better and excel. His ability to communicate his ideas and at the same time be open to debate made it very easy and a memorable experience to work with him.
Michael has compared the England of the 19th Century during Tess’ time with the new India that’s emerging (industrialization, urbanization, education). Do you agree? How have you seen India change in recent years and how in particular, has it changed for women like Trishna? It is quite true and I never really paid attention to that comparison, till I had to justify to myself why Trishna would be the perfect Indian Rajasthani adaptation. It definitely is. India has changed in a lot of ways and in some ways there is still the need for more change. Education is slowly trickling into most remote villages of India and the importance of educating the girl-child is also coming to the forefront. There are still a few rigid ways and blind faith beliefs–social class system and casteism–that serve as hindrances in a few small towns and villages in the interiors of the country, but despite that conscious efforts are being made to ensure that the need for basic education to children–male and female–is met and adequate support to see it through is provided for. The Thar English Medium Primary School in Ossian that lent their support in the pre-production process of the film is one such example of the educational change in rural areas. As far as cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, etc go, there is an incredibly distinctive change. Technology and modernization has improved the quality of life, and education has become on a par with the international standards, if not better. The manner in which India’s economy has seen an unprecedented boom in the last one and half decades and particularly in the last four to five years has a lot in common to the industrial revolution of England. And of course as far as changing role of woman in society goes, the fact that the current President of India is a woman is quite a shining example.
How did you get involved in the project? We know you’ve worked with Michael before, take us through the process and tell us why you wanted to be a part of it? Michael randomly got in touch and invited me for lunch and a catch up and told me he had adapted ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and that he wanted to set it in modern India, crossing classes and cultures. In his usual informal relaxed way, he offered me the role and I said yes of course!
Who is Jay? What sort of background does he come from? What motivates him? Is his privilege and lack of ‘hunger’ his curse? He’s the youngest son of a rich Indian businessman. He’s in his mid-20s and he hasn’t managed to step out of his father’s shadow and really make his own way or make a success of his life on his own terms. He suffers from the lost rich kid syndrome. He’s on this trip to India from Britain with his friends as a last kind of blow out before he stays on in India to run some of his father’s newly acquired hotels in Rajasthan. He’s frustrated because he has to slot into that role rather than have his own projects and that both haunts and drives him as a character and ultimately the project he finds and latches onto is Trishna herself. He seeks her out and tries to develop her, to satisfy his own needs and make something his own. In some ways you could say his privilege is a curse in the sense that he’s got a lot to live up to. But in other ways, he does try to break away in his own direction when he goes to Bombay. He’s only able to do that and have that financial independence because of his wealth.
Does he really fall in love with Trishna? Yes, but I guess we’ve been talking from the point of view of the macro themes and where he’s coming from means there’s a tragic outcome to the relationship. But, on a personal level, there is something there and he’s completely bewitched by Trishna. She represents the ideal of an innocent woman for him – the virgin maid and it is a kind of love. When they’re in Bombay they are in love, but the limitations in the relationship come from the gap between them being so vast. There’s only so much they can talk about–their world views only overlap to a certain extent. At the point where they’re talking about the abortion that’s something that really frustrates Jay, because Trishna didn’t make her own mind up about that and she kept it from him. I guess honour trumps honestly and openness for Trishna. There is love between them but as with every relationship, what makes up that love is lots of different things. Maybe for Jay at the beginning, he almost over-idealizes her, he sees her as a way of re-connecting with his ethnic background and to reconnect with something pure and innocent and something that’s his own. The limitations of all those things in the relationship start emerging and he feels he’s failed in his own life.
What was it like working with Freida? A lot of fun–she’s a very cool girl. I think she’s an incredibly instinctive and natural actress. She’s very generous and there’s minimal fuss with her. Working with her is one of the easiest processes because she’s incredibly self-sufficient. She’s generous about giving you space and time to develop your character. For me it’s ideal to work with someone like that, particularly when you’re working with Michael and the process is one where things change and evolve and everything’s very flexible. Michael wants you to be natural and that creates a really nice atmosphere on set.
Tell us about Jay’s role as both Angel and Alec from Hardy’s novel? At first I thought it was kind of daunting to try and combine two great characters from literature but what became clear was that it wasn’t going to be a literal adaptation of Hardy’s novel. Angel’s love for Tess is pure whilst Alec’s is a more selfish love. In the novel they’re never really on the scene at the same time so that meant we could take on the spirit or psychology of one character and then at different stages in the story, introduce the other. To begin with, Jay idealizes Trishna in the same way that Angel idealizes Tess. He sees her as a pure woman and views the experience as a return to a natural way and all that is good and pure. When Jay is at the hotel with his friends, he spots this girl from the village and this real obsessive, full-blooded love emerges and at this point we see Angel’s spirit in his affection for her, but what we start to get is a gradual decline into Alec. Having a novel to base the characters and ideas on gives you a rich armoury to draw upon. If we’d have been too faithful to the novel, we’d have all gone mad!
There are strong similarities between Hardy’s England and what’s happening in India right now. Can we explore that? Yes, that’s a very interesting thing to draw on. India is changing at breakneck speed with modernization, industrialization and mass migration from the countryside into more urban centres and we explore how the old world and new world are rubbing up against each other. The idea of morality is very pertinent because it’s very important to point out that some western audiences may find themselves slightly confused as to why Trishna feels embarrassed about sleeping with Jay and why she feels she needs to run away and why she feels mortified at having had the abortion. This is all a big deal for her. The issue is about traditional morality and that’s what it’s like in large swathes of the world to this day, where sex before marriage and having children out of wedlock is still a huge deal and that shame can destroy a family in terms of their public standing. Maybe people need to realize that’s a reality when they’re watching the film.
What was it like taking on your first romantic lead? I guess I’d never really thought about it being a romantic lead. It’s a romantic story but also a tragedy and a drama. From my point of view I try to make the characters I play as complicated for myself as possible so I don’t have to have a very clear grip on who they are day-to-day on set, so you get a fuller picture of them at the end of the film. That’s also part of how it is working with Michael – not having a rigid, fixed view of the characters.
Release Date: July 13 in NY/LA, July 20 & 27 additional US cities
Cast: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth, and Anurag Kashyap
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Official Site: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/trishna