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Interview: Michael Winterbottom

By Jonathan Robbins on July 16, 2012 in Filmmakers

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In Thomas Hardy’s Victorian-era Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, lovely 18-year-old Tess leaves her poor family’s home in rural England after a series of tragedies to reach out to a wealthy female relative, but instead falls prey to her ostensible cousin, Alec, a predatory libertine. Tess later meets and falls in love with Angel, a reverend’s son and farmer, but their relationship is marred by her past. Fate tosses Tess between the two men until she can bear no more.

Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, his third and most exciting Hardy interpretation yet (following Jude, 96, and The Claim, 00) brings Tess to present-day India, where the eponymous Trishna (Freida Pinto) meets the dashing Jay (Riz Ahmed), the British-born son of a well-to-do hotelier. After her father crashes the family’s truck—its principal source of income—Jay comes to her aid, and a torrid romance ensues, ensnaring both in a web of passion deformed by India’s colonial history as much as by their own pasts.

Trishna shows a country in the throes of a radical modernization like that of Hardy’s Victorian England, contrasting the arid climes of Rajasthan with the teeming seaside metropolis of Mumbai, where anything seems possible. Winking at its heroine’s Bollywood-worthy rise from rags to riches, Winterbottom’s film features performances from Indian mainstays, including director Anurag Kashyap (Dev D; screenwriter of Water), actor Kalki Koechlin, and well-known choreographer Ganesh Acharya. FILM COMMENT spoke with Winterbottom via phone from Italy, where he was location scouting for his next film.

Trishna starts out in the desert city of Jaisalmer, with its crumbling castles, and then Jay and his friends visit a Jain temple. The landscape of Rajasthan is central to the film. Would you talk about that?

Yes, the Jain temple is in the city of Osiyan, about an hour from Jodhpur and a four- or five-hour drive from Jaisalmer. The whole idea for the film started there when I was in India before for a film called Code 46. Being there was the beginning of my having the idea to transpose Tess to that area. The landscape in Rajasthan is obviously amazing, but it was really the culture and the society, and the sort of changes that were being experienced in Hardy’s novels—small communities being transformed by economic changes and such—that was the beginning, rather than the thought “this looks amazing.” It was the parallels with what was going on in Osiyan.

Were you actively looking to embrace or avoid correlations with the novel? You’ve said that Hardy’s symbols of modernity, like the steam train, register very differently today. What do you do with this conundrum of transmuting visual motifs?

For me, the importance is the way in which the characters relate to their world. Because what I like about Hardy is that he shows characters that are individuals, but he also looks at the way in which they’re shaped by these bigger forces in society. So it’s not like you can really show a steam train, because you can’t show what a steam train meant in the 1880s or whatever. We see it as being just beautiful, but for them it was the most modern and liberating form of transport and so on. So [in Trishna] there is the mobile phone, which is a sort of perfect equivalent for what was going on in Hardy’s time. Because what he’s talking about is people who are moving on from one very stable, static, rural and family-based community, to a much freer, more urban, modern world. So it’s about the way that those changes offer more possibilities but also more dangers.

To me that kind of content is harder to achieve, because when you’re trying to remain intellectually faithful to a period novel—like when I did Jude, based on Jude the Obscure, I was trying to remain intellectually faithful to it—it’s almost harder to capture what the novel is actually about than if you transpose it. That was the starting point for making Trishna: my seeing how the culture is actually changing, because the modern version of that is actually happening in India. This let us capture the actual spirit of what Hardy was writing about, [more] than when we did the film for Jude the Obscure

Trishna has a kind of Bollywood narrative, which often deals with romantic intrigue and people’s changing positions in society.

Yeah, the story Hardy was telling is “poor girl meets rich man and falls in love,” and that is, as you say, the story of many Bollywood films. I think the first time Angel sees Tess, at the dance—I liked that because it was a part of what was actually there as opposed to a recreation of Britain, and the whole of idea of them dancing mixed with the Jain temple before. Dance is so much a part of Indian culture. You have the dancing girl in Bollywood films, and that sensuality is there, but at the same time, for a girl to have sex outside of marriage, especially in Rajasthan, which is very conservative... For Trishna to make love to Jay had a huge impact on her life. But no impact on Jay. And that is what Hardy was writing about, that difference: the fact that she’s a woman, the fact that she’s from a poorer economic class, means that the experience for her is totally different and far more important than it is for Jay.

Is that why she’s so upset after their first romantic encounter? The nature of the encounter is ambiguous.

Hardy had different versions of the novel, which was originally serialized, and in different versions he made it more or less like rape. Obviously Jay is chasing Trishna, but I also wanted Trishna to like Jay in the sense that maybe she is in love with him, to some extent. He persuades her, when he should have had better judgment than to make love. But the thing is, I wanted it to be like Hardy did it, where we get up to it, but we only see the aftermath of it, not the actual event. I think when Jay comes back, she obviously has to like him enough to want to go back with him to Mumbai. But with Jay, even if he persuades her to make love—even if he feels he’s in love with her—it shows a weakness in his character, a lack of love, a lack of empathy. If he thought about it, he would know that he was making her position untenable.

In a sense, Hardy is Tess’s biggest advocate, as the book’s subtitle (“A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”) suggests. Did you set out to make the film advocate for Trishna?

The starting point is that Jay is a young British guy having the typical British backpacking experience, and his rich father owns these hotels. By the time Trishna can exact her revenge on Jay for what he’s done to her, I want you to be on Trishna’s side. Which I guess has the same shape or form as Hardy’s novel, where you start with Angel and then you see Tess, and the story begins after starting with Angel. Obviously, when you have a story where someone kills someone else, you would not normally be on the side of the killer, but I think in this context, you are. Jay’s reasons are quite mixed, quite complicated reasons: he’s weak, he feels he’s in love with Trishna, and he’s someone who is exploiting her and pushing her, treating her first as a kind of servant and then a mistress, almost like a slave really.

You had two different composers for the soundtrack, Amit Trivedi and Shigeru Umebayashi. Some of the music is Bollywoodish fare, and much of it is Western string-based compositions. At what point did the composers join the project?

Well, Amit Trivedi was on from the beginning, and he actually plays a composer in the film. He read the script and we talked about it, and he went away and wrote the songs before the film. He is part of the Bollywood tradition, and I had never worked like that before. And it’s great, to have somebody who’s actually writing songs specifically about your story to capture your story in exactly the way you’re telling it. So that aspect of Bollywood film, I thought it would be great to use that, because Bollywood plays a part in Trishna. And after we shot the film, Shigeru Umebayashi, who did the score for In the Mood for Love and who is based in Tokyo, then wrote the score.

Would you talk about the presence of several big players in the Bollywood scene in the film—Anurag Kashyap, Kalki Koechlin, and Ganesh Acharya? Are you working with them on other projects?

I’ve been back in India since [Code 46], but I’d never had a close connection with Bollywood. Trishna’s story was always that she would come to Mumbai, and be with Jay, who wanted to be in films. So that was there from the beginning. And then I met Freida [Pinto], and I went back to India and I met with Anurag in Mumbai, and he was then the entry point to all the other Bollywood people we worked with. When we were in Rajasthan, we had a small crew and we had a few people helping us there, which was great. Then when we were in Mumbai, we worked with Anurag’s company.  I met Amit Trivedi through Anurag. Anurag’s a great guy and full of energy.

Freida Pinto has a very different look from how Hardy describes Tess, as a kind of buxom milkmaid. Did you depart from that image on purpose?

A while ago, we actually sent the casting director to Mumbai, and she was there for two weeks but said she couldn’t find anyone. So we put the idea away for a while. Then having worked with Riz [Ahmed, on The Road to Guantanamo], I thought of him to play Jay. Then I met Freida, and I thought to myself, “Freida’s perfect.” It’s really about a beautiful and complex relationship between two sets of characters, and knowing that Riz would be Jay, I thought having Freida there would make sense of that. Trishna’s main qualities are kind of selfless qualities; she’s very passive, she refuses to assert herself until she’s pushed so hard she snaps. It’s hard to find a strong enough actor who can handle the sense of Jay falling in love with her, but at the same time is modest enough to make you believe she is this very passive and selfless character.

As with many of your films, much of Trishna is improvised. Have you always had the confidence as a director to do that?

Yes, and in the case of Trishna, most of the people in the film are non-actors. Chanchal is a hotel worker and she’s playing herself, all the dancers in Bombay are Bollywood dancers, the family Trishna lived with in Osiyan, they’re all a truck driver’s family, the dad is a truck driver. They all kind of know what they’re supposed to do. Part of that is to have all the people in the film knowing how they have to behave. And the other side is showing Jay and Trishna lovestruck, where it was about giving Freida and Riz as much freedom as possible. That relationship is not so much about what they actually say to one another, but how they relate. There the improvisation was about getting Riz and Freida to feel they could forge some sort of real relationship with each other.

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