Freida Pinto took a break from her jury duties at the Red Sea Film Festival to talk to Variety about her career and her hopes for the future.
The Indian actor shot to world fame for her starring role in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) and remains committed to the breadth of cinema. “I’ve always looked at cinema globally,” she tells Variety. “After ‘Slumdog,’ I could have easily played all the Indian roles, the girlfriends and sidekicks, or just gone and done something only in India.”
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Instead, she sought out challenging roles, often playing non-Indian characters such as Iranian or Arab women, for example a Palestinian girl in “Miral,” a choice that she recognizes is now controversial.
“I know it’s not okay these days, because the world has opened up and there’s so much talent,” Pinto says. “But — and I don’t mean this in a pompous way — with a film like ‘Miral,’ where I’m playing a Palestinian girl and it’s such a controversial subject matter, they needed someone then who could put butts on seats. I now see that’s why they chose me, but at the time I thought: I can see myself as x, y and z, and I feel that in me too. The way I think now is not the way I thought back then, at all. But those films opened doors and made people more aware of a whole region, which has so much talent and so many stories that are not being told frequently enough. I wouldn’t do it now, but I’m very proud of what I did then.”
Having had a large part to do with placing Bollywood in the mainstream of Western culture, how does it feel to be in Saudi Arabia where Bollywood stars are greeted with such adulation?
“Bollywood is all over the region. The Middle East and Northern Africa. I believe it’s also huge in Japan. When I was filming in Israel and Palestine, I remember going into the old city of Jerusalem, and they were literally selling DVDs of old Bollywood movies and they would say “Hind,” which means Indian in Arabic. They would ask me, even though I was in character, if I knew all the old Bollywood actors, which obviously I said no.”
So what’s the appeal?
“I think what really works is the escapism, which is something Bollywood cinema does best. I love what we do in the Western world as well, but there’s something magical about Bollywood and it’s always about family, love and culture, and it’s immediately relatable for the Middle East. Coming together, respect for your elders, all of that is represented in Indian Cinema and although Saudi Arabia and India are different countries, there’s no disconnect, when it comes to that. The Western world and their beliefs are more nuclear than the extended family.”
This global perspective also is dictating Pinto’s own future both as an actor and a producer.
“The opportunities are changing now. We’re celebrating ‘Minari’ and ‘Parasite’ at the Oscars. You’re in a bubble if you think Hollywood is the only thing. There’s Asian cinema that isn’t tapped into or explored, and they’re all doing really well in their own countries as well as elsewhere. I don’t want to be just doing Hollywood and working with the filmmakers who we hear about over and over again. That’s why I would love to work with Nadine Labaki. I loved her first film ‘Caramel’ and I’ve been hoping an opportunity would come and now with my own production company I can create that opportunity for myself if I wanted to.”
2024 looks to be a big year with a slew of projects potentially coming to fruition, including roles in Season 2 of Apple TV+ show “Surface” and a film adaptation of Onjali Q. Rauf’s “The Boy at the Back of the Class.” As a producer, she has four projects near “the finishing line,” including a Deepa Mehta film.
“It’s all coming together,” she says.
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