The director, whose movie Trishna screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival tonight, talks about the experience of adapting a literary classic and filming in an India he's seen change over the years.
With Michael Winterbottom's new film it's a case of West meeting East
The maverick British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has a penchant for making films on the Indian subcontinent. Code 46, In This World, A Mighty Heart and The Road to Guantanamo all saw the Blackburn-born director get on a plane to shoot in exotic locations. His latest film, Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel and Victorian melodrama Tess of the d'Urbervilles, moves the action from rural Wessex to Rajasthan, India.
It's not the first time Winterbottom has moved the location of a Hardy story. The 50-year-old director transposed The Mayor of Casterbridge from a fictitious British town to 1860s California and the American mid-West in The Claim.
Given his experience of shooting in India, it's surprising to hear the director claim that he does not know much about the country. "This is really the first film I've made that is set in India," he points out. In both cloning the drama Code 46 and the Daniel Pearl story, A Mighty Heart, India doubled for another country.
"To be honest, I have to confess, I'm totally ignorant of it. I was desperately trying to read a lot about Indian history and so on. I've only been in a few tiny places, but obviously it's an incredible place.
"From my point of view, in this case, what attracted me is the sort of dynamism of India. That was the connection with Hardy in a sort of way - Hardy was writing about a world rapidly changing, and that fit with India."
I met the director in Toronto. It was the day after the world premiere of Trishna at the Toronto International Film Festival and Winterbottom was battling a cold.
The picture stars Riz Ahmed as Jay, a young British-born businessman who has come to India to work in his father's hotel business. The early scenes with his friends in Mumbai highlight the fascination that the world has with India and its growing economic power. The scenes are shot more like a docudrama than a Bollywood epic and Winterbottom explains that he wanted to shoot the film with a small crew to avoid some of the logistical problems that he's had in the past.
"Both the times I'd shot in India before had been quite hard work," he said. "This time, especially in Rajasthan, we went there with a small crew. It was mainly a British crew and we had a local location manager and a few locals. For some reason, it was a lot easier, I don't know why.
"Rajasthan has changed a lot since I was last there; where we were filming there was a lot of irrigation that wasn't there before, so when before they would only farm in the monsoon, now they are harvesting in two seasons.
"There are also a lot more films. But I think the main difference was that, literally, the last time every time we put a camera down there were, like, 500 people standing looking at the camera. It was like, 'What's going on?!' Whereas this time, it was a bit more normal, it was weird."
That, however, doesn't mean the director wasn't influenced by the region. Songs and the dances start creeping into the action. Music is an important component to the film, even if they are not quite the full-blown Bollywood song-and-dance sequences.
"I wanted the film to be about someone who has a dream that can't be realised. So to have the characters watching films and dancing, there is that kind of dream that a lot of people have to be actors, so it starts to represent the world that you might be in and the things that we might do. So we incorporated it into the characters' stories, rather than create a sort of fictional thing, there can be a group of people that they meet in Mumbai.
"I thought it was perfect for Jay's character that Jay would think that film is cool, so he'd want to go to Bombay and from there, work on the hotels."
Jay is an amalgamation of the characters Alec and Angel from the book. One of the difficulties of adapting a large novel packed with so much melodrama is fitting things in. As Winterbottom points out, the popularity of taking classic British novels and turning them into Bollywood films probably stems from the fact that Bollywood does melodrama better than almost any other cinema in the world.
His Trishna is played by the Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto, and her portrayal of the title role is delivered with an innocence that makes her character compelling and charming. She also has a strong will, which is essential when the relationship between her and Jay starts to disintegrate.
"As soon as we thought about the idea for the film, we thought about Riz and Freida for the parts," Winterbottom said. "So I met with Freida and I thought she was perfect for it, so we didn't really have a casting process."
The result is another stunning film from one of the most prolific directors in the world. The London-based Winterbottom has made more than a film a year since he moved from working in television to cinema in 1995 with his serial killer drama Butterfly Kiss. He won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for In This World, a story about people smuggling that starts in Pakistan and sees two young boys attempt to get to Britain. One of the locations they go through is Dubai, and one of the many projects that Winterbottom wants to make is The Promised Land.
He tells me that finances remain the only stumbling block. "We've been trying to make a film for several years that is set in Palestine in the 1930s, in Tel-Aviv when it was part of the British mandate. And it's about two British policemen, Wilken and Morton, who are running the anti-terrorist squad who are chasing the right wing group led by Stern. It's essentially a thriller with a love-story element."
For now, the project is on the backburner. Nonetheless, Winterbottom has a reputation for making the films he announces, even if it takes a number of years for him to find the time, or the money, to get them off the ground.
- Trishna is showing tonight at the Abu Dhabi Theatre at 9.45pm
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