Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Hardy in India

Nine years ago, British director Michael Winterbottom visited the deserts near Osian in Rajasthan for a documentary project. Though Osian did not make it to the final cut of the documentary, Winterbottom decided to make a feature film set in Osian. This is Trishna, a not-so-faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which will release in India in March 2012.

The story revolves around Trishna, played by Freida Pinto, who wishes to rise in life despite her humble roots. She meets Jay Singh (Riz Ahmad), the London-bred son of a hotelier, who falls in love with her. What follows is a rollercoaster of emotions that Marcel Zyskind’s (a Winterbottom regular) camera captures unflinching, never once shying away from reality.

Asked why he chose to set Tess in India, Winterbottom says, “I think Hardy was able to capture ordinary people’s lives really well. He wrote about rapidly changing rural landscapes as a result of increased education, mechanised farming, steam engines, and so on. Right now, India is undergoing a similar change, so I thought it would be interesting to set the story in India.” Clearly, Winterbottom, who has made three films on Hardy’s novels, knows the author very well.

Shot in Osian, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Nagore and Mumbai in a short shooting schedule of six weeks, Trishna is a departure from Winterbottom’s two previous films which released last year — The Killer Inside Me which was a thriller, and The Trip, a comedy. Trishna, on the other hand, is a cross between a gritty documentary on rural India and a love story.

Unlike Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, however, Winterbottom depicts both the incredible and insipid India in the same light. On his choice of Pinto for the lead role, he says, “When I met Freida, she came across as extremely beautiful but also as someone who could convey Tess’s pain.” Pinto is not the only Indian on the film’s credits. The film has been co-produced by Sunil Bohra and Anurag Kashyap while Amit Trivedi has composed the music, coming up with an evocative soundtrack which combines Rajasthani folk music with sounds of English bands like Kasabian and Portishead.

Kashyap, Trivedi and Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin play themselves in the movie, while Trishna’s family members are inhabitants of Osian who hosted the film’s cast and crew. In fact, some of the best wisecracks in Hindi uttered by the minor characters were spontaneous improvisations.

Recounting her experience of working on the film in Goa, where Trishna premiered at the recently concluded 42nd International Film Festival of India, Pinto says, “This is an author-backed role of a silent sufferer and Michael took me ten steps ahead as an actor.” Used to working with large crews in The Immortals and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pinto says she found working with a small crew on Trishna an “intimate and interesting” experience.

Trishna is the third film this year to adapt a classic novel — earlier there were Cary Fukunaga’s bleak Jane Eyre and Andrea Arnold’s dreamy Wuthering Heights. While both these films stuck to the novel’s plot, purists may scoff at the liberties Winterbottom takes with the original, especially in the character of Jay Singh, who is a combination of the two main male characters in the novel. But Winterbottom is undeterred. “Every human has a spiritual and sensual side which comes out at appropriate time,” he says.

But why make a movie that is so bleak, and offers little hope? “When the socio-economic conditions of people are rapidly changing, some are gainers while some are invariably left behind,” says Winterbottom. “In this period of flux, Trishna might have lost out but I show that there’s still hope for her family.”


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