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Michael Winterbottom is multitasking — like that's a surprise. He has made a dozen films in the past decade, as varied as the Steve Coogan comedies 24 Hour Party People and The Trip, the controversial Jim Thompson adaptation The Killer Inside Me, and two radically different assessments of the War on Terror, one an experimental docudrama (The Road to Guantanamo) and the other an Angelina Jolie star vehicle (A Mighty Heart). Today, he's calling from vacation in southern Italy to talk about his new film, Trishna — a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles transposed to modern-day India — while simultaneously celebrating Italy's win over Germany in the Euro Cup. When he calls from what sounds like a street party, his attention proves to be, shall we say, divided: Instead of answering questions directly, he offers roundabout, mile-a-minute digressions around keywords.
Was this annoying? A little. It was also fitting, given that Winterbottom's film embodies the philosophy that Hardy put forth in a preface added to Tess in 1892: "A novel is an impression, not an argument." Trishna is nothing if not an impressionistic variation on Hardy's themes.
"It's hard, I think, when you do a period film, to capture a sense of the [contemporary] world," Winterbottom says. "Hardy was writing about the way in which [his] world had changed and the ways in which rural society had to adapt to this new industrial age with new transports, urbanization, and all the social changes that went along with it." Winterbottom had visited the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan while location scouting for another film, and the people he met there — particularly young women, who were well-educated and obsessed with Bollywood even while bound to tradition — reminded him of Tess, a late-19th-century heroine caught between a rural life of daily labor and modern, moneyed leisure, two spheres with disparate moral and social strictures. "So I thought, 'Maybe if we set it here, in some ways, we can be more faithful and more authentic to the ideas and the spirit of Hardy than to make a more literal adaptation.'"
Trishna deviates from Tess in a number of key ways, most notably in the conflation of two of Hardy's male characters, Alec and Angel, into Jay (Riz Ahmed), a British-raised hotel scion who has reluctantly come to India to manage one of his family's properties. Jay soon meets Trishna (Slumdog Millionaire beauty Freida Pinto), the eldest daughter of a rickshaw driver, and offers her a job as a server. The gig pays the equivalent of $43 a week. To Trishna, whose family sleeps three to a cot, it's a fortune.
Trishna's most fascinating variations on the conflict between past and future come in its sketches of sex and gender. Tess's impregnation by the wealthy Alec in Tess has been debated from the book's first publication — was it seduction or rape? Winterbottom preserves that ambiguity, leaving the actual act offscreen, showing us only Trishna's opaque reaction — we don't know if she's a traumatized victim or upset at herself for having stepped outside deeply ingrained notions of propriety. Jay later woos Trishna with the promise of the big city as the place where such ingrained notions, tied to class and ancestry, no longer matter. The handsome prince thus sweeps the plebe maiden off to a luxury apartment in the sky of Mumbai (depicted as a hyper-real collision of oblivious privilege and extreme poverty). But it's a fairy tale that cannot last; this laissez-faire setting cannot erase the extreme gulf between Jay and Trishna, differences that become all too apparent when the couple moves to another rural hotel, where both lovers revert to their more natural roles, and tragedy ensues.
In Jay and Trishna's differing backgrounds, says Winterbottom, "You have two extremes in a society that is quite rigid." The film's exploration of extremes coexisting uneasily is especially palpable in a subplot involving Mumbai's film industry. Simultaneously blatantly sexual and buttoned up, Bollywood gives Winterbottom an opportunity to examine modern media and mores in India, bumping against archaic ideas about men and women embedded in the nation's art, history, and religion. In the hands of Winterbottom, who has shown a knack for infusing red-flag sex with dread without sapping it of sexiness, the master-slave dialectic is made grossly, appropriately literal.
The film, not unlike its inspiration, suggests that a beautiful, broke girl like Trishna would be subject to so many mixed messages and torn in so many different directions that her downfall is inevitable. Winterbottom brought in elements of nonfiction filmmaking, casting "real" people who could help reflect their own reality. It's Winterbottom's first credit as a solo screenwriter, which he admits is "probably slightly misleading." "A lot of the film was improvised; all the actors could easily have had a writing credit as well.
"We changed the story in order to accommodate kind of the reality of what the situation is for people there," he continues. "The dancers in our film are dancers, the hotel workers are hotel workers. We met lots of people who had a very similar story to Trishna's, in that they came from small towns in the countryside and ended up being in the huge commercial center that is Bombay."
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