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Michael Winterbottom is multitasking. In the past decade, he has made a dozen films, as varied as the Steve-Coogan-as-Steve-Coogan joints 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 on the phone from his vacation spot 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. Calling from what sounds like a street party, he is distracted and his attention is, shall we say, divided: Instead of answering questions directly, he offers roundabout, mile-a-minute digressions around keywords.
Yes, it's a little annoying. It's 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.
"I'd made an adaptation of Jude [The Obscure], which was a very faithful adaptation of the novel," Winterbottom says. "It's hard, I think, when you do a period film, to capture a sense of the [contemporary] world. 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."
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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. More interesting than Winterbottom's licenses in adaptation are the ways in which he uses Hardy as a starting point to create a dialogue between a postcolonial, emerging global market and the lingering psychological remnants of pre-industrial society. Trishna opens with a Jeep full of British tourists hurtling off-road in rural India while listening to "Shoot the Runner" by laddish Brit-rock band Kasabian. Winterbottom's characters sing along, "I'm king, and she's my queen, bitch!" Before we even know who these guys are, we know that the imperial instinct is alive and well.
One of those lads is Jay, who 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. India, of course, is an emerging market, moving toward competing with or even surpassing the Western nations feeding its tourism industry. By hiring girls such as Trishna to dance for and wait on travelers for whom $43 barely buys breakfast, resorts like Jay's are selling a fantasy of the Old World to modern tourists, almost as a salve on the wound of the West's eventual irrelevancy.
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 its 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 the 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 hyperreal collision of oblivious privilege and extreme poverty). But it's a fairy tale that cannot last; this laissez-faire setting cannot absolve the extreme gulf between Jay and Trishna in terms of where they come from — 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, taking female pleasure as its subject while asserting incredibly old-fashioned patriarchal ideals, Bollywood gives Winterbottom an ideal 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. These ideas are exported into the imagination of men like Jay via the Kama Sutra and reinforced by the very act of being served in resorts by girls like Trishna. In the hands of Winterbottom, who has frequently 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 dialectic itself is never discussed.
"There's a kind of strange area with Bollywood and with Indian culture in general. You have strict rules about what you're allowed to show, what you're not allowed to show, what you're allowed to talk about, and what you're not allowed to talk about," Winterbottom says. "The whole idea of dance and beauty and sensuality is part of religion as well as part of culture, obviously — Bollywood certainly."
The film, not unlike its inspiration, suggests that a beautiful, broke girl such as Trishna, naive to the ways of the world and of men, would be subject to so many mixed messages and torn in so many directions that her downfall is inevitable. But rather than merely fuse Hardy's impression of 18th-century England with his own impression of India, 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. They're not actors. 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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