Freida Pinto Interview: 'Trishna', Michael Winterbottom, A Changing India, Thomas Hardy
Freida Pinto burst onto our screens as the troubled fairytale princess, rescued by the Slumdog Millionaire of Danny Boyle's surprise masterpiece.
Just to complete the fairytale, Pinto has also settled down with her slumdog co-star Dev Patel in Hollywood. She's also the star of Trishna, unconventional director Michael Winterbottom's Bollywood-inspired adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Here, she talks about working for Winterbottom, how Slumdog has changed her life and
Q: Take us through the process of how you became involved in the project. What attracted you to it and to the role of Trishna?
A: When I was told that Michael Winterbottom would like to meet me to discuss his new film project, I obviously jumped on the opportunity. He is one of those rare directors who makes films by boldly attempting and embracing any given genre. I was already familiar with Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles and the idea of having it set in contemporary India was absolutely brilliant and apt. I was pining to sink my teeth into a hardcore independent project and Trishna came along.
Q: Who is Trishna?
A: According to our story, Trishna is the nineteen year-old daughter of a rickshaw driver. Since she's had a taste of a little education, she doesn't entirely conform or fit into the traditional mould of thinking that her parents belong to. She leaves school and works at a hotel near her hometown of Ossian in Rajasthan to bring more money into the household. She is, however, determined to ensure that her younger siblings are given a good English middle school education, something she wishes she could have continued as well. She meets Jay while working at the hotel and falls in love with him and has a sometimes blissful, but mostly tumultuous relationship with him, which eventually leads us into their tragedy.
Q: Tell us about Trishna's personal journey
A: Trishna for me, is the epitome of purity and suffering. Her journey can be divided into the three phases within the film. The first is her mundane family life in Ossian which starts changing only after she meets Jay. An unspoken passionate tension and subtle seduction rule this phase. The second phase is what I called "the Happy Phase" where both Jay and Trishna get temporary freedom from everything class-related, where they can just enjoy being together, uninhibited, in the city of Mumbai. They really discover each other during this time and are passionately in love. The last phase is the most complex one of the story where Trishna has to face the inevitability of her fate with Jay and the fact that she would never be able to rise from her social class/status to be on the same level as him. In a way she would always have to submit to him in society. However, in their private moments while the love still exists, it slowly turns into sadistic torture especially for Trishna, which she swallows as a bitter pill. Finally, she is pushed over the edge and that's when she decides she cannot take it anymore.
Q: Tell us about her relationship with Jay
A: Jay in our film is the embodiment of both Angel and Alec in Hardy's novel. Trishna's purity is alluring to Jay but it's that very quality he ends up exploiting in his Alec phase. It's a very passionate relationship filled with sexual tension, awe and a certain admiration for each other. But they are almost like each other's forbidden fruit. Trishna would probably only dream of falling in love with someone like Jay and only in her wildest dreams would she ever imagine it to be a reciprocal feeling. There is a lot of shyness and passivity in the way she handles her side of the relationship with him never knowing how much she could actually open up. So when she finally does tell him about the pregnancy, his image of her being a symbol of "ultimate purity" comes down like a house of cards. It's a doomed romance.
Q: How different was the shooting experience and working with Michael, compared to your other films?
A: Michael has a very distinctive style of filming. He is not afraid of getting his hands dirty in a way that he can be fully involved in the story and encourages and expects us to do the same. He also has an optimism that is absolutely admirable but also quite intense. He knew I didn't speak Marvadi at all but somehow thought since I spoke Hindi I would be able to speak and improvise in Marvadi as well. It obviously scared the living delights out of me and forced me to find a method to pick up the language in less than 20 days! He likes working with a very intimate set - very few people where you don't feel like it's a movie set. He is very flexible and invites the actors to come up with their own ideas to enhance the scenes. Every film has had its own unique and wonderful experience but this is what is unique about Michael.
Q: What sort of preparation and research did you do and what other skills did you have to learn? You do a lot of dancing...
A: Oh yes - the dancing! I accompanied one of the crew members on a recce a month before we started filming to get a better sense of the culture I was going to dive into. It's obviously not enough to just be an Indian to play this character. Rajasthan is vastly different from Mumbai. I met a lot of families, young girls working at hotels, recorded videos and audio tapes, went to local schools, spoke to students there and got interesting insights on their dreams and aspirations and the hurdles they come across in accomplishing those dreams.
Q: The role of Trishna is huge and required flexibility and versatility, which you excelled at. What were the biggest challenges and biggest joys of the shoot?
A: It has been by far my biggest and most demanding role and I couldn't have enjoyed it more. The biggest challenge was adopting Trishna's passivity which is not necessarily her strength or weakness, it is both. Many times Michael had to remind me during certain scenes not to respond and join in every conversation but rather be the observer and absorber. That's very difficult for a chatty girl like me who is always ready with a response!
Q: Michael has compared the England of the 19th Century during Tess' time with the new India that's emerging (industrialization, urbanization, education). Do you agree? How have you seen India change in recent years and how in particular, has it changed for women like Trishna?
A: It is quite true and I never really paid attention to that comparison, till I had to justify to myself why Trishna would be the perfect Indian Rajasthani adaptation. It definitely is. India has changed in a lot of ways and in some ways there is still the need for more change. Education is slowly trickling into most remote villages of India and the importance of educating the girl-child is also coming to the forefront. There are still a few rigid ways and blind faith beliefs, social class system and casteism - that serve as hindrances in a few small towns and villages in the interiors of the country but despite that conscious efforts are being made to ensure that the need for basic education to children - male and female is met and adequate support to see it through is provided for.
As far as cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore etc go, there is an incredibly distinctive change. The manner in which India's economy has seen an unprecedented boom in the last one and half decades and particularly in the last four to five years has a lot in common to the industrial revolution of England.
And of course as far as changing role of woman in society goes , the fact that the current President of India is a woman is quite a shining example.
Q: Trishna's journey is portrayed in a very raw way. How did it feel to play that? How emotional was it?
A: It was very challenging but liberating. Michael did not tamper with or clean up the natural setting to make it seem conventionally perfect. It was easier to play with everything that I was surrounded by. That also helped me immerse myself in my character for the 9 to 11 hour filming days without feeling the need to let myself get in the way. Mistakes were the best part of the filming process. They were not corrected and fixed every second of the day. The fact that the camera never stopped rolling and we never had a script was my favourite part. I had to live every minute of the scene as my character.
Q: Michael has drawn similarities between Thomas Hardy's storytelling and Bollywood films (melodrama, love, poor girl falling in love with rich man and being carried away). Can you see that?
A: Absolutely. Essentially it can be viewed as a typical Bollywood story - the themes and the definite melodrama in it. Even some of Hardy's lines can find a direct parallel to some of the Bollywood films, especially when Angel returns from Brazil to find her as a mistress to Alec and Tess tells him "It's too late, it's too late". It's reality that is heightened with tools like melodrama.
Trishna is in UK cinemas from Friday 9 March. Watch the trailer above.