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. Instead of answering questions directly, he offers roundabout, mile-a-minute digressions around keywords.
That's 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."
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. Winterbottom 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.
Trishna's most fascinating variations on the conflict between past and future come in its sketches of sex and gender. Tess' 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." 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. 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.
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."