I am hit with a sense of déjà vu as I wait for Hollywood star Frieda Pinto to arrive for our interview. Our meeting point (an outdoor terrace lounge with a spectacular view of Burj Al Arab) and the occasion (the Dubai International Film Festival) are the same as when we first met. But those were the only constants in Pinto of 2008 and Pinto of 2012.
Five years ago, the Mumbai-bred girl was simply introduced as acclaimed director Danny Boyle’s stunning discovery. This model, plucked from obscurity, had just nabbed a ticket to Hollywood with her squalor saga ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. The then 24-year-old actress was sitting on the cusp of stardom taking in her newfound popularity. Like all newbies, she was eager to please and spoke highly of her mentor. The self-titled graduate from “Danny Boyle School Of Acting” joked with her colleague Madhur Mittal (the actor who played the sadistic brother of Jamal Malek owned by Dev Patel) who had tagged along with her, posed coltishly for pictures and shared fun details like how she still made her own bed at home and how Mumbai slums were a treasure trove for good leather bags. All these were shared in a clipped neutral accent common to girls churned out from good Indian schools.
Cut to 2012, you find a more polished but still sparkling version of that hesitant girl who had dubbed herself as the luckiest girl on the planet.
She’s now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars, hobnobs with fashion royalty at Milan Fashion Week and works with the likes of Woody Allen and Britian’s Michael Winterbottom. At Diff, she has been upgraded from a festival guest to a jury member for short films. So clearly, her luck hasn’t run out.
“The word luck is so unfortunately misunderstood by people,” said Pinto in a British accent prior to her firm handshake and a strict no-video request.
She should know. Pinto, though India’s biggest Hollywood export, is yet to get a vociferous nod from her native movie-mad fans and in the West, the terms “underused” and “ glorified eye-candy” are often thrown up in reference to her.
Her harshest detractors have even slapped her with the biggest fluke in Hollywood history — albeit a stunning one — tag.
“You just can’t have luck all your life. You can have that one moment when all your lines are aligned at the right time. But after that, all you have is what you bring to the table — that’s your talent, your personality, your charisma, your commitment and dedication. That’s all you have and you have to keep working at it. Luck is not going to be the playing factor about where you are going to be next,” explained Pinto.
She has a point. The daughter of a school principal and a banker father brought up in a Mangalorean household has done remarkably well. From playing a Rajasthani peasant in ‘Trishna’ — a modern take on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, to a Greek oracle priestess in epic fantasy ‘Immortals’ and a passive girlfriend in the blockbuster ‘Planet Of The Apes’, Pinto has broken the one-film-wonder curse. Even Madhur Mittal, who had accompanied her in 2005 at Diff, has fallen off the glamour radar and hasn’t sustained the hype like Pinto has.
“The thing with detractors is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are going to have them. If I am not going to waste my time thinking about what they think about me as opposed to what I feel I should I should improve on, it’s not going to work,” said Pinto.
“I don’t think the critics are as harsh as I am on myself. They can never be, they cannot even come close to it,” she adds.
She is defiant but expresses it with a lot of dignity. She claims every professional move is orchestrated with great care. Though her life reads better than a fairytale romance, Pinto’s career is a mixed bag of blockbusters and art-house cinema.
“With independent films, there is always a no-brainer situation. Not only because it is great piece for an actor to play with but also because I think it is through independent cinema that socially relevant movies get tackled,” said Pinto clearly leaning towards parallel cinema. She deliberates a lot more when movies which have blockbusters written all over it comes her way.
“With films like ‘Immortals’ and to an extent ‘Planet Of The Apes’ – they are all entertaining films – since I like being entertained by films like that I make a conscious decision to act in films like that. But at the end of the day, if I want something that’s satisfying for the soul I will go to independent projects. Having a mix is always better. I don’t want to miss out on one over the other,” said Pinto.
Her acting prowess may yet to be acknowledged, but you have to hand it to Pinto for not falling into the token Indian girl in a Hollywood project stereotype. She says the actors of Indian origin need to take the blame partly for it as economics of earning a living takes over their creativity.
“It’s unfortunate but true and in situations like that you feel a bit powerless. But this year has been so lucky for Indians... I am so happy for Anupam Kher. I am so happy for him because he has played his character with so much integrity and honesty that I can’t even say he is Indian. Even with his accent, there’s a fluidity and I am so glad about the appreciation he is getting,” said Pinto alluding to Kher’s film ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, which was recently nominated for a Golden Globe Best Feature.
She rolls out her verdict carefully and comes across as more worldly wise than our first meeting five years ago. The ‘Black Gold’ actress has an opinion about everything and is not afraid to express it.
She is also craving to be a part of Indian cinema and not traditional Bollywood (more on that later) musicals and is baffled when her personal life is scrutinised by the media. (She even delivers a veiled threat that journalists will have to hear from her if the mudslinging gets out of hand but takes the bite out of it with a laugh).
“It’s not something I commissioned them to do. So how can I control it? Sometimes it is outrageous about what the media can make up in order to hike up their ratings,” said Pinto.
In 2009, Pinto’s whirlwind courtship with Hollywood was marred when her scorned ex-boyfriend screamed betrayal about being dumped. Pinto is currently romantically involved with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ hero Dev Patel.
“Sometimes I wonder whether they go back home and think about what they have done and whether they realise that the unnecessary sensationalising has upset someone and deprived someone of their sleep,” said Pinto revealing a streak of vulnerability.
But she’s soon back to business when asked if she was still a student of Danny Boyle’s acting school and whether she had more teachers to add to that list.
“I probably said that in 2007, because that was the only film I had done. With every director I work with progressively, it is a combination of what I have known, what I am willing to learn and what I don’t know.”
What’s more? Pinto, who is a fixture in the world’s best dressed and the world’s most desirable, doesn’t consider herself as a star.
“I don’t think I like the word star because you can be a star and never been an actor. I’d rather be an actor.”
“I always think that I am blessed. I never take that blessing for granted.” Pinto.
Pinto on her Diff jury duty and the Middle East:
“I have some very interesting films in the last few days. There’s a lot of good cinema emerging from this region. Also, ever since I did ‘Miral’, I stopped having pre-conceived notions about any region. I feel it’s unfair to label a country or a bunch of filmmakers. I wouldn’t want anybody to do that to my country or me.”