Monday, July 9, 2012

The Girl Who Finally Said No

Trishna Is Playing in Theaters

The Girl Who Finally Said No

(from 7/10/12)
TrishnaFPphoto.jpg Freida Pinto photo by DP
Michael Winterbottom's sumptuous Trishna, in which he transports Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles from 19th Century England to modern-day India, was one of my favorite films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. The scenery is gorgeous, the lovely Freida Pinto delivers a daring, assured, and exquisite performance in the title role, director Winterbottom breaks rules and takes interesting liberties with the novel, and the jolting ending is sure to be controversial. The result is that there should be lot of discussion on your way home. The film opens this Friday and I highly recommend it. The story of the ill-fated heroine will stay with you, as it does me. I took part in the following roundtables with Pinto and Winterbottom during the festival. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Freida Pinto
Q: When you go back to India, as you did on Trishna, does it shock you how little or how much has changed?
FP: It doesn't shock me because I grew up in an environment in Bombay where not everyone had the same opportunities that I had. I feel that Trishna is a perfect way to bring Tess of the D'Urbervilles from 19th Century England to 21st Century India, because you see so much urbanization and the onset of these educational systems because children want to be educated. Things are changing and it is happening at a fast pace, although it will take time until it trickles down to rural communities. It was actually shocking to see the changes that are already happening in rural areas. I would expect them to not happen because they're so far away from city life, but it has changed so much. You know, 21st Century India is so different from what it was in rural England even when Hardy wrote about it. It's happening much faster than it happened back then.
Q: You grew up in Bombay and in a very different class than Trishna. She is far removed from your own experience, so how did you connect to her?
FP: It was really difficult because of what you say. I never grew up in a situation where I had to be submissive, not just to men but females in my life. I had the independence and liberty to always make my own choices. I didn't know what the other world would feel like. So I started my research a month prior to the film starting. I went down to Rajasthan and spent time with a few families. Some of the families we actually used in the film. I met a lot of girls, all kinds of girls. There were girls like Chanchal, the really talkative one at the start of the film. They were kind of traditional but a little more outspoken than Trishna. And then there were girls like Trishna. I remember meeting a 16-year-old girl who was married and staying with his family. I asked her, "Have you finished school? Do you want to be educated?" She was like, "Yeah, I'd like to but now I've got to cook." She was not openly resentful of it. She had almost accepted that this was going to be her life from then on. Those are the kind of influences I brought to my character. Because that's when it struck me that there is a reality that exists outside of my own.
Q: Under what circumstances did you see this movie for the first time and what went through your mind afterward?
FP: Michael wanted me to see the film before I watched it with the audience at the Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, they burned a copy of the movie but the quality wasnt really good. I didnt want to ruin the experience so I stopped watching it. And I remember telling him, "Everything was too dark and I couldn't see anything." And he's like, "What? That was the feel of the film and you didnt like it?" And I was like, "I didn't mean that. But let's watch it at the premiere." When I actually watched it I looked at the way it was pieced together. Obviously, when you're shooting a semi-improvisational film you really don't know which direction the director is going to take it using the footage. It was really up to him on the editing table to decide what direction he wanted to go in, because we gave him all kinds of things to choose from. And what actually went through my mind after the screening was how everything he had said completely made sense. This was especially true when I wanted to have more of a say in what was happening with Trishna's situation, and he said, "Don't talk. Just be quiet and absorb what's happening around you. And we'll see how it goes." That now made the most sense because Trishna's passiveness as she absorbs pain, and her internalizing of it of it justifies Trishna's final act for me.
trishnatwointimate.jpg Riz Ahmed and Freida Pinto
Q: How would you describe Michael Winterbottom's directing style?
FP: He's very quiet but he's to the point. What I found amazing about his style of working was how unconventional it is. There are no Actions or Cuts. The camera didn't stop rolling as soon as the scene was over. It would go on to capture even mistakes because sometimes a mistake makes for a beautiful take. He was always encouraging his actors to improv on set, which is a leap of faith. A director has to really believe that they'll be able to do it and carry out his story. He was trusting and very welcoming to suggestions and very democratic on set. I can still hear him.
Danny Peary: Does Trishna ever say NO to a man in the film?
FP: Toward the end actually she says to Jay that she doesn't feel like dancing for him any more. And he kind of persuades her to do it anyway.
DP: Her passivity is really interesting.
FP: I needed Michael's help with that because it was really, really hard for me to keep quiet in a lot of situations. It was improv and Michael helped me quite a bit by saying this is probably where Trishna would say something or wouldn't say anything. That's the difference between letting the actor just play out the character and letting her own thoughts and own upbringing interfere with her character, especially when she's that passive. It was almost to the point that it gets disturbing
Q: Is the submission of a daughter to a father still true in India in every class?
FP: Not in every class. Definitely not in my family. Actually, down south in Kerala there is a matriarchal system. So, it's completely the opposite of what we would see otherwise. I think it really depends on the family, the extent of education in the family, and how much of the world they've seen. You'll find this kind of submissive situation in Trishna's lower-class society and also in the Rajput society, which is the rich and the royal family of Rajasthan. One of the girls I met was going off to get married. An arranged marriage. She used to ride a bike and have a completely urban lifestyle, and I was interviewing her and she said, "Oh yeah, this is going to be my last month at the hotel. I'm not going to be working here after that." I'm like, "Oh, a new job?" "Oh, no. I'm going to get married so I'm going to enjoy this bike riding for the last few months." I asked, "What do your parents have to say about it?" "Oh, my father wants me to get married." So, it doesnt really hold the same for all.
DP: Because you're a female from India playing a female from India, would you contribute anything to Englishman Michael Winterbottom's knowledge of the subject?
FP: Yeah. You know, I'm very happy that he went there before all of us. Even eight years before when he was shooting Code 46 and that's when he found Osian. He loves Thomas Hardy and his books anyway. I thought this would be the perfect place to shoot Trishna because he found the similar Tess. And he was very welcoming to suggestions that came from Riz Ahmed and me, especially from me because I am from India about my character, her passiveness and how she would probably possibly respond. Most importantly, how she would be with her father? There's a difference in how she would interact with her father and her mother. You know, she's never that open with her father. She never really has an open conversation with him. Not so much with her mother either. You know, the only person that she loves talking to are her siblings. That's the only level that she can actually relate to. Yeah, so Michael was very open to suggestions. And he already knew how he wanted Trishna to play out. So, it did help that I wasn't there telling him, "Oh no, she wouldnt wear that because thats completely not believable." He would just let me do it because he knew that I would not mess up.
SPOILER ALERTDP: Heres a question that you dont want to answer. Would Trishna kill herself even if she didnt kill Jay first?
FP: I thought about this so much and it's a really good question. I was very conflicted about whether she actually had to kill him. I was thinking that maybe she should just go back to her family and find another job on the farm. Maybe she should just do that. But then it struck me, this girl just had an abortion. You know how it is in villages. Everyone knows what everyone's doing. The word spreads like fire. She lives in a social situation where she's already looked down upon for what she's done in the past. She's brought shame upon the family. So, going back and living there is as painful as being looked down upon as someone dirty. It would be almost as difficult for her to do that as it is to stay with him. There is emotional torture, which rips her apart. But neither with him nor with her family can she really live again. I felt like she has so much strength in her, which she has used to kind of plow through all the situations she's been through. Maybe she can go that one extra mile and just live with this pain. But you never know actually with human beings, when they just flip and they just dont want to do it anymore. I would want her to be a survivor in this situation. But unfortunately--also because we were going according to the book--she does end her life. In the book she gets hanged, so it's a different thing. But her death is inevitable. I also feel like it's the death of her pain and suffering when she physically leaves the world. It's sad that she is always one inch closer to what she wants but she never gets it--whether it's the fact that she wants to complete her education or to be in love with this man or help a family.
DP: Or dance.
FP: Or dance. And that's the most important thing because the only time she comes alive is when she's dancing, even when she was in Osian with her family. So I almost feel like some kind of a death is almost inevitable for this character. Trishna is an unfortunate character. However, if I were playing her as Freida, I would do it so differently. I would go back to Bombay and find a career as a dancer or I would kill him right at the start of the film! I dont know. It's a tricky situation. I was rooting for her, I really was.
Q: She has the responsibility of earning the money for her family;her siblings depend on her, as do her father and mother. So when she kills herself, she essentially cuts them off of any financial aid.
FP: That is true. That's horrible. When she says goodbye to her siblings she pretty much knows that it's going to be very difficult for them to even complete their education. She's prompting them to just keep going, keep going, something that she couldn't do. And I felt that would be so damaging for a family because she was bringing in the income. But I was like, "Okay, this girl has gone through so much." Maybe this is the answer too. Maybe it is. I'm not promoting it, but maybe it is for her.
Q: Tell me one thing you learned from Trishna?
FP: Just to say no when the time is right. Don't wait for time to fly by. Saying no,
even in situations in the film industry,
trishnapintohood.jpg Freida Pinto as Trishna
maybe with publicity, here you're asked to do certain things that you don't think are right for you or you can't relate to. Instead of beating around the bush, I think the best thing to say is: "I'm just not going to do it."
Q: How did your parents feel about you getting into acting?
FP: They were fine with it. They would be surprised if I did anything else because they knew I was dramatic enough when I was a kid. They had no idea what I was going to do when I grew up. I knew that acting was a passion but I never knew that a profession could be made out of it. I did not have a godfather in the industry or someone to guide me. I had none of it. So, I kept saying, Oh, I'm going to join the army, and then it was something else and then something else and then a wedding planner. So, they knew these dramatics would stop somewhere when I finally found my calling.
Q: I'm wondering if you think that beauty is something that helps you in your career or has it also been something where people have looked at you and said that she's really beautiful and we're going to use her only as a beautiful girl.
FP: It's funny because when my second film happened, none of the beauty questions even came up. I played a Palestinian-Italian journalist in Miral. So, I was just playing her as a 17-year-old girl and that question never really arose even though she is so beautiful.. In the Woody Allen film, yes, in playing a next door neighbor who is a seductress, that did come into the picture. But I feel it really depends on me, how I want to pitch myself when I go into meetings and how I want to play a character. I hate saying this, but sometimes they look for this "exotic" girl in the film. Then they'll send a script for an "exotic girl, " and I'd have two lines, which you can take
out without affecting the film at all. It's for me to say that the part is not for me.
Q: What's coming up next for you?
FP: I have two independent films that I'm working on at the moment. They're not really financed. I feel so passionate about doing independent projects and promoting them at Tribeca and other festivals that welcome independent films. I've been prepping for one of them since December. I really do hope it takes off. I wont say much because I know they want to make an official announcement before I open my big, fat mouth. It's contemporary, almost based on true life.
Q: What kind of prepping?
FP: Oh, physical prepping. It's not an action film even though I do physical prepping. But another film of expression, which is not necessarily just acting through dialogue but acting through body movements.
DP: Through dance?
FP: Yes.
DP: Like Trishna.
Roundtable with Michael WinterbottomQ: Did you see Roman Polanski's Tess?
Michael Winterbottom: Yes, I saw it when it came out and fell in love with Nastassja Kinski from that. Partly because of that, I later worked with her on The Claim. It was a western and the writer suggested borrowing a story [The Mayor of Casterbridge] from Hardy. She's lovely.
Q: Why did you choose to move the Hardy story to India.
MW: Because it's partly about a society in transition and change. In Britain, it feels like it's stagnating, which is a different sort of problem. In India, people's lives are changing a lot. A lot of people are improving their lives and trying to make changes in a world that is different from the one their parents grew up in. For all the people who make it, there are others who don't. There's the danger of falling through the gap between one world and the other. It's interesting because it generates a lot of stories that are simple but have big things at stake. Obviously the rural village community where Trishna comes from doesn't provide her with a lot of opportunities to express oneself as an individual. You're protected and safe as long as you don't venture outside; but as soon as it becomes modern and urban, all that protection disappears and you have to get what you want by yourself. There are still opportunities but the protection disappears.
Q: Did you like shooting there?
MW: I'd shot in India twice before and had difficult experiences. I'd actually shot in Rajasthan before and though we didn't have actors who the people knew, when we took the camera out we'd get three hundred people in the street following us. This time that didn't happen and I'm not sure why. It was quite challenging technically but most of the problems we anticipated didn't happen. It was easier in the hotels but even in Jaipur we were able to shoot this time. Maybe the economic changes have affected people and they have gotten more used to everything.
Trishnatwostars.jpg Riz Ahmed and Freida Pinto
Q: At which point did Anurag Kashyap come into the picture and when did you decide to have Anurag, Kalki, and Amit act in the film?
MW: Trishna likes to watch films and dance and the dance element was in from the very first draft of the adaptation; obviously cinema is part of Indian culture. Anurag himself I met at the beginning of the process of making the film, at the beginning of pre-production and he introduced me to Amit and Kalki. I always wanted the film to be in that world and had hoped to get real people to play themselves in a way but I didn't know Amit would be up for acting. He's actually quite up for that! And he's really good. Amit's quite shy but it was great because I'd never really worked with a songwriter writing songs for film. So it was really fun and sweet that we were able to have him in the film. And the dancers we met were great and they had parts in the film.
Danny Peary: You changed the accident at the beginning of the film from being her fault in Hardy's book to being her father's fault. I think it wasn't a minor change but affected everything that happens later. Did you feel that, too?
MW: Yes and no. When you read Tess, you don't really feel the accident is her fault. Of course she feels obligated to make up for that but I think she'd feel obliged anyway because she is the oldest daughter and she is who she is and has the possibility to help the family. It was more an expression of the character than what formed the character.
DP: I'm actually asking about the difference in the fathers. Because the accident is his fault in your movie, he feels obligated to her and does things like help her have an abortion without saying anything. He always gives her the evil eye, but she knows his weaknesses.
MW: Right. He is weak in that sense, but then again, in Tess, the father is weak, too. Maybe it balances out. One of the reasons I made the change was it was practical. In reality, in India we couldn't have her drive the truck. Women don't do that, it just doesn't happen. The family in Tess is much more marginal and he is much more feckless as a father and is a drunk. I talked to lots of drivers and this was a guy who actually, like a lot of people in India, is trying to make things better. His economic stage is going up before the accident. He has a decent house, his kids are going to school, he is paying off the jeep in monthly installments. It's like India as a whole is becoming better off. Until the accident. And she becomes the breadwinner and he feels shame because of where he is from.
TrishnaMWphoto.jpg Michael Winterbottom, photo by DP
Q: Something else that you changed is that you combined the two main male characters into Jay.
MW: It's tricky. I love Tess, but it's frustrating that Hardy makes such a clear distinction between Alec, her sensual lover, and Angel, her spiritual lover, because most people are both. I thought that in the movie it wouldn't be as interesting to have two black-and-white characters than one character who is wrestling with both aspects of why he is in love with her. Jay is someone who wants to be in love with Trishna and makes love to her because he thinks he loves her yet he has an armor of weakness. If you think about it, if he genuinely loves her he wouldn't make love to her. He's the owner of a hotel and rich and can make love to her without consequences, but for her as a woman and an employee, he should be able to imagine that he can't make love to her and have it all be fine for her. As soon as her fellow worker Chanchal is aware she has gone off with Jay, Trishan's position changes. Jay wants to be good but he's weak and spoiled.
DP: Basically everyone hates Jay by the end of the movie...
DP: ...and also at the beginning of the movie. But is he also a victim of the culture?
MW: He's a victim of his father in a sense. His father is infuriatingly strong and confident and has made his fortune. Jay, like Alec in the book, is a bit of a victim of that upbringing. He doesn't need to work or have a career, so he doesn't know what to do with his life. But it's really hard to have sympathy for a spoiled rich kid. You see that he is likable in lots of ways and could be a good person, but in the end he doesn't have the strength of character to carry that through. For me, he's the least clear character in the film. When Trishna tells him that she aborted their baby, that throws him. They don't communicate much. He falls in love with her but doesn't really know her, other than that she has a lack of imagination. Although in Bombay, they love each other in the moment, they come from two very different worlds.
He has an idea of her that her story of the abortion disrupts a little bit. But in the end that's not why things go wrong. When he returns from Britain, he has already decided to go back to Rajisthan and he sees this as being a good son who takes over his father's business. But he doesn't think what that means to Trishna. There, it's impossible for an incredibly rich person and incredibly poor person to be together. He basically forces her to go back to being his mistress and a worker who pretends not to be his lover. Although neither wants to acknowledge it at first, as soon as he turns her into his employee who is having sex with him on the side, as opposed to being his partner, he destroys their relationship.
DP: When you say Jay is not a clear character, did you intend him to be vague?
MW: I like that it's open to interpretation. I like the idea that you watch something and have to make your own mind up about what happens. It's not where this moment must be the moment when characters realize something or laugh or cry or whatever. I don't want one conversation to be where their relationship is destroyed but just one part of the process. I don't mind that people have different views. I like not having things scripted precisely; I like improvising and seeing what people do and then deciding what works.
Q: In that conversation when she says she had an abortion, he gets angry but just before that she accepted that he'd been cheating on her.
MW: Exactly. There's a double standard. He believes she's pure and simple because she has a different background than his.
DP: Did Feida understand Trishna right away or did she develop her?
MW: She did develop it through performing rather than a long time before, because in a way what's in the script is the story rather than the characters. The actors knew roughly what they needed to communicate, and Freida spent a lot of time talking with the real people in the film--the hotel workers, the dancers, and especially the young people in the family because she had to play scenes with them and know how to behave as a daughter in that family. She'd watch how the other sons and daughters and nephews in the house behaved. If you got actors from India to play those roles they'd have preconceptions about people behaved in that house but life is always much more varied and all the children behave differently and not a standard way.
DP: From talking to Freida, it seemed like she really thought about her motivation.
MW: I didn't have to worry about that! I let the actors do that!


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