First published on 30 Mar 2012. Updated on 10 May 2012.
In Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a beautiful peasant girl is courted by a preacher, raped by an aristocrat and driven to despair. Roman Polanski cast the dewy Nastassja Kinski as Tess in his faithful 1980 adaptation, and Gemma Arterton played the part for the BBC in 2008. Now Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto slips into the role in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, which relocates the tragedy to modern-day Jaipur and Mumbai.
Not your typical UK costume drama, in other words. “No, it’s not, but it works perfectly,” says UK actor Riz Ahmed, who stars opposite Pinto as Jay, a would-be entrepreneur who falls for the lovely Trishna and employs her at his father’s hotel, but ultimately comes to resent her.
“Themes that were alive in Hardy’s time aren’t so relevant today in a western context, but they are in modern India," Ahmed says. "Conventional sexual morality really looked down on sex before marriage for women in the 19th century, and that’s still the case in rural India... Trishna and Jay find it impossible to connect because they’re defined by the world around them.”
It's Winterbottom's third Hardy adaptation; typically, the director mapped out scenes for the actors then let them improvise while the camera rolled. “You’re able to be there, be real, and serve up a slice of life rather than a performance with a capital P,” the actor explains.
Ahmed, 29, grew up in Wembley and began rapping in his teens before attending Oxford and training at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. In 2006 he caused a stir with the Riz MC single ‘Post 9-11 Blues’ in which he memorably rapped: “Shave your beard if you’re brown and you’d best salute the crown/Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your arse down.”
On the same track he ruefully admitted that since 9-11 he had been getting plenty of work as an actor playing “terrorists on the telly”. And it was Ahmed’s starring role as the leader of a cell of idiotic would-be jihadists in Chris Morris’s excoriating Four Lions that has made him famous throughout the Muslim world.
“A lot of people expected an angry backlash but the opposite is true. It’s become the cult film among young Muslims, not just in the UK. I just did a film in Pakistan and Four Lions is huge with everyone from middle-class student stoners to back-alley, asylum-seeking Somalians. Everyone has seen it.”
Ahmed has worked with Winterbottom before, in 2006’s The Road to Guantanamo, playing one of three Britons abducted from Pakistan and detained and tortured by the US. Shooting Trishna opposite the ravishing Pinto was a much pleasanter experience, he says: “I didn’t wake up with fresh scars from shackles on my ankles every morning.”
Trishna opens May 10