If I was sceptical of the idea of an Indian-set retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then Trishna removed them successfully. Michael Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Hardy novel (following The Claim – based on The Mayor of Casterbridge – and Jude) this updates Tess to modern Rajasthan, a province still functioning as a rural community enough alike to nineteenth century Dorset (or Wessex) to make the parallels less of a gimmick and more living and breathing motivations for the characters. It is a place where the kind of passivity that Tess shows in the face of all decisions would be credible – for a Western audience – in a young girl from a poor family. What more local audiences will make of this – and in particular after some of the controversy that Slumdog Millionaire generated – I’d really like to hear.
Being able to see this pretty much back to back with Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, shows how two of the main contenders for current leading British filmmaker approach their work with such an eye for the essences of the story and a desire to make it truly modern. Arnold’s film catches you with how it blends both the language of the novel with modern expressions – without the two jarring and so emphasising how little the essences of people and their passions change. It is embedded in the storytelling through the dialogue – a better claim for contemporaneity than any of the surface glosses (wet shirts, tousled hair) added in order to ‘sex up’ and so update certain Austen or Bronte adaptations. Quite differently, Winterbottom has engaged with aspects of Indian culture to create a world where the girl from the village, Trishna, can believably wish to aspire to be part of a glamour that would usually be completely out of her reach – the world of the Westernised Jay whose father owns the luxury hotels to pander to tourists’ colonial nostalgia and who dabbles in the fringes of Bollywood, his money attractive to ambitious filmmakers and musicians. There’s a very modern dilemma for Trishna. Winterbottom (responsible for the screenplay as well as the direction) allows the narrative to generate other possibilities that the lead character could follow in twenty-first century Mumbai. How she chooses to resolve her situation would be huge spoiler – so I won’t spoil it.
In the Q&A following the screening, Winterbottom and Pinto discussed working with a treatment and exploring improvisations extensively (the dialogue is very loose and naturalistic in line with this) and how many of the characters are non-professional locals in the area around Ossian (a city which is off the regular tourist track – as Jay’s group comments – but which looked stunning in Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography) playing a version of themselves. Pinto spent a long time with the real jeep driver’s family who play her family in the film – and that is tangible in the warm on-screen relationships making their relationship much more central than in the novel. Winterbottom had long eyed that area as ideal for an adaptation of Tess – since he went there for Code 46 (another even more improvisational narrative, with some of the same issues of power and disenfranchisement as we find here).
The music drives the story. From the homage sequences to Bollywood films – where a dance rehearsal in the story breaks out of its frame within a frame to become a brief performance sequence direct to camera – to the Indian movies playing on the television. Better minds than mine will be able to furnish the specific references but it’s a melodrama in the true sense in the way it subsumes the music into the drama. The girls (‘milkmaids’) dance with youthful joy and abandon to the TV sequence, knowing all the moves – by turns sexy, provocative but with a carelessness that is innocent of their seductiveness. (This is at the heart of Tess too). The process of working with Amit Trivedi during the course of the film – so that the original songs were developed during shooting enabling them to be embedded into the story (commenting back on the action as is familiar in this style of movie). The original theme is a lyrical, elegiac melody – imbued with a tone more nineteenth than twenty-first century. Written by Shigeru Umebayashi (who was responsible for just such another affecting score on A Single Man) it returns periodically to overlay the romance.
Winterbottom commented that if Pinto and Ahmed had not agreed to do the film, then it simply would not have been made. This is a very typical publicity puff we’re all used to hearing on the DVD extras, except this time it was more convincing. These two actors are what British stars are made of – embodying an charisma outside their character and a conviction within it. Ahmed, in particular, handled a character combining both Alec and Angel well to maintain engagement with a potentially unsympathetic role. It made me want to see them in a role where their ethnic origin, or their ability to represent those roles, was removed. (Although I see Ahmed has subsequently worked with Mira Nair on an American-set 9/11 related narrative – her handling of such a narrative would be a must-see following films such as The Namesake).
Music has been such as integral part of Winterbottom’s film conceptions – there are the obvious links via Nine Songs and 24 hour Party People; there are the collaborations with Michael Nyman in Wonderland and The Claim; a clip played from Jude reminded me of that haunting folk melodies that convey the melancholy and impending tragedy in that story. In an accompanying screen talk, Winterbottom outlined how that process differs from film to film (not surprising given the wide diversity of material he engages with) and it reminded me what a versatile role music plays in his films.