If anyone else was wondering where we would next see the heartfelt acting of Freida Pinto after the unexpected hit Slumdog Millionaire, look no further. Her turn as the title character Trishna in Michael Winterbottom’s latest feature assures she is a face that is here to stay.
Winterbottom transposed Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles to modern day India, where class differences and societal pressures still have as much influence as they did in Hardy’s novel set in early England. Trishna tells the tragic story of a young woman who is trapped both in a personal and socio-economic web of tragedy.
The film opens with a chance encounter between Trishna and Jay (Riz Ahmed) when he is vacationing in her rural town with his friends. It begins with the feel of ‘love at first sight’ and after a tragic accident injures Trishna’s father, the family breadwinner, Jay finds Trishna a job at his family’s luxury hotel- both so she can support her family and be close to him.
From the very beginning, the film calls the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet to mind- unfolding a beautiful story of love and seduction portrayed through emotion and gorgeous cinematography, but along with it comes a sense of impending doom.
After a clandestine courtship Jay and Trishna consummate their feelings but her societal guilt as an unmarried, unpure woman leads her to flee the hotel and return home where she learns she is pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. Before long, she is sent away by her father to work for her uncle in near sweat shop conditions.
A few months pass but Jay manages to find Trishna and convince her to run away with him to Mumbai, a big city where he promises their lifestyle will not be looked down upon. Trishna quickly adapts to life as Jay’s faux-wife- a fancy apartment, new friends, dance classes, and a possible career in the city. She even supports Jay on his endeavors into filmmaking. Despite this sense of newlywed bliss, Trishna is essentially Jay’s mistress and the stress of this begins to reveal cracks in their relationship.
When Jay’s father falls ill and he must leave, he promises to bring back a family heirloom and make Trishna his wife. Wanting no secrets, Trishna reveals the terminated pregnancy for the first time to Jay and this changes their story for good. While gone, Jay not only does not call but Trishna is evicted from their apartment and forced to live with friends not knowing when Jay will return. When he does, it is with a different attitude and news that he will need to return to one of the more rural hotels and Trishna can travel with him as his maid.
Back amongst rural India where ‘live in girlfriends’ are a thing of shame, they continue their affair. However, the romance is gone, replaced by a feeling of ownership and Trishna becomes sexual prey to her captor Jay. She is pushed to the limits in this film, as is the audience who almost can not bare to see this relationship fall from love to violence and betrayal. Ultimately, Trishna makes a choice that leaves the viewer feeling horrified, empowered, devastated, and numb all at once.
Pinto’s performance is breathtaking. Although she must remain silent through much of the film, you can see the things she wishes to say in her eyes. Taking on nudity, rape, love, and acts of violence, she convincingly delivers on a wide range of emotions which ask a lot of an actor. Similarly, Ahmed’s performance as Jay- a character who appears as her kind savior and then finally as the ultimate villain- is one not to miss.
Despite being shot in both Hindi (with subtitles) and English, there is no thought or emotion lost in translation. Trishna will make you question just how far societal pressures will make a person go and the personal tale will break your heart.
After the screening PPLA was able to attend a Q & A with Freida Pinto, here are some of the highlights:
Q: How did you first get involved with the project and what were some of the challenges in bringing this role to life? What was it like working with MIchael Winterbottom?
A: I first met him in London (the director). The book was one that I had read and was familiar with so I knew before going in that this was a project that I wanted to do. So I met him in London and we spoke about it. He spoke about it like I was already involved and here I was thinking I would have to convince him to let me be in the film. Before long, I was on it and I sort of just jumped in the deep end. Originally the film was supposed to be about 80% in English and 20% in Hindi and Morabadi but it ended up being 50/50 almost. There were a lot of surprise challenges like that. For example, he gave me the treatment but it wasn’t really a script and then a couple of months later a script did come to me but on the front page was written, ‘this is not a script’. (laughs) The best thing to do when working with Michael is just go with it. If he says jump on that station over there and we are just going to do a little walk and talk to anyone and we will capture it. I would just do it. We would just work with the environment and improvise and it was really nice not to always be prepared and pre-planned for everything.
Q: Have you worked in that improvisational style before?
A: No, never, that was pretty much my first.
Q: You get a sense of both the bigger social forces and the personal story in this film. Is that something that appealed to you in bringing this story from England to modern India?
A: I think Michael is the real genius here. Nine years ago, he was filming a film here and so he is familiar with it and he really thought that Tess could be adapted to India. I read this book too, but for some reason I never thought of that. He’s a true genius because he could see how 19th century England and 21st century India have so much in common, whether it be modernization or the dawn of India becoming this economic super power and all these various changes that have taken place as a result of that. He really saw how some people, well everyone really, is just trying to get the most out of this new development that has taken place. But some people just fall through the cracks. Trishna is one of them. It was really Michael’s foresight that this story would be perfect and so it was really us actors just going with his vision. As far as the story goes, he took a lot of liberties in making changes and merging the characters of Alec and Angel into one, into Jay, and that made more sense for me as well. He is trying to show how this one character, this one man could have both the good and the bad, like all human beings.
Q: This was a very immersive process for you. You went and traveled and stayed in many of these places and you had to learn Morabadi and brush up on your Hindi for this film. What was that experience like?
A: I went about a month in advance when one of the producer’s was looking for locations. I thought it would be an opportunity for me to learn about the girl or girls, really, that I am representing. So I spent a lot of time with these women who worked at hotels and had dreams of becoming teachers and all kinds of professions. There was one girl that really represented the girl on the verge of being the modern Indian woman but she still has things she won’t do because society or culture hold her back. And then I met another girl, a sixteen year old girl who was married and who was preparing tea for all of us. I asked her if she had every been to school and she replied, ‘yes when I was ten’. I asked if she would like to go back and she said, ‘yes but right now I would like to finish making the tea.’ That’s when I realized that they accept whatever it is that tradition or family values makes them accept. It doesn’t mean that they want to but they do. They are not submissive. On the surface they appear this way but they have an inner strength. As far as the language, I grew up speaking not the pure Northern Hindi but the more Bombay Hindi, which is almost a bit gangsta, so I had to learn Hindi properly. Then I had to learn Morabadi and no one told me that the dialect changes about every 100 yards so I kept having to learn… it was a lot of learning on learning. It was very hard, especially with the improv, but that was also the fun of it.
A: Your character is quiet for a good portion of the film, with almost no dialogue. How was it conveying those emotions as an actor?
Q: For me it made sense that she would be quiet with Jay, but even with her family, like the scenes with the father, Michael didn’t want me to be very outspoken. At one point, I jumped in with this speech about my dreams and he said, ‘no, you don’t get to say anything’. It was really interesting but at the end when she commits her final act it really made sense. She has all this frustration and all this build up because of everything she has been holding in. She never gets to say it but you can see it in her eyes sometimes and you don’t know whether she has accepted it as her fate or is going to fight back. Toward the end of the film, after she’s seen Bombay and seen a more modern world and that girls out there express themselves more openly, I thought maybe it would be rubbing off on her. But Michael had to remind me of where my character came from and two months of spending time in Bombay doesn’t do that to anyone. It’s undoing a whole life time of learning to be obedient.
Q: This is one of your first films made within the Indian film industry and first exposures to Bollywood. How do you feel about that?
A: I feel with Slumdog we did touch upon a little bit of Bollywood at the end of the film. In fact, Slumdog is actually more the Bollywood film itself than Trishna because Trishna is this tragic film which we don’t like to talk about much in India, because ‘we’re happy people’. (laughs) But the shoot in Bombay with all the dancers, those are actually real dancers that dance in Indian films so it was about discovering their lives as well and we touched upon Bollywood. I don’t know how this will be accepted in India to be honest because it is so unlike a Bollywood style film. It is going to be released there though.
Q: What was it like working with Riz Ahmed and filming those two final scenes?
A: Because both characters were so improv we would sit down the night before and talk about, ‘so what happens next in this story? Where does Trishna go, how does Jay feel?’ So it was nice to have that support and collaboration. As for the intimate scenes, they are never easy. In a strange way, these scenes are never there to titulate but more to disturb. It was very disturbing both to watch and perform a lot of these scenes. (The audience laughs uncomfortably knowing exactly what she means). It really is disturbing rather than sensual because it really is, in the end, against her will. The final scene is a very interesting story. We were shooting the first scene and the last scene of the film on the same day. So we were shooting the beginning and end simultaneously and they had me walk for hours in the desert to shoot my death scene. We had walked about four hours and it was getting really very hot and I kept asking, ‘what are we doing?’ But they kept saying, ‘we are just walking’. Then we scaled this sand dune and at the top we looked around and Michael said, ‘do you like any of these scenes for your death spot?’ (laughs) I guess he did it the rigtht way because he exhausted me for four hours so that by the time we shot it, I did want to kill myself. (laughs) As for the violent scene with Jay (Riz Ahmed), Michael just thrust this knife in my hand and we just did it in one go. It took a couple of hours and it’s a brutal scene but you just have to give it your all and it was done all in one go.
Q: What’s up next for you?
A: I am in Los Angeles shooting a film called Knight of Cups with Terrence Malick. I can’t really say anything yet about the film but shooting Trishna definitely prepared me for this project as well.
Watch the trailer.