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Freida Pinto on films, falling in love and feminism

She’s known as the Slumdog Millionaire girl but Freida Pinto is also a global ambassador for gender equality, which she says can only be achieved through education

The Interview People
3 Apr 2015 | 12:00 am
  • Freida Pinto.

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  • With ex-partner and co-star of Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel.

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  • With Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who helps girls and young women in Afghanistan get an education, during the Girls Rising screening in the US.

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  • With DIFF Chairman Abdulhamid Juma at the Life of Pi opening gala at the 9th Annual Dubai International Film Festival in 2012.

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  • With Queen Latifah at the Nobel Peace Prize concert at Oslo Spektrum last year.

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  • After Slumdog, Freida chose culturally diverse roles such as Desert Dancer, and Miral.

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  • Desert Dancer.

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  • Miral.

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A bright smile is in place, as is the dark glossy hair. A pair of strappy stilettos add power to her femininity while the all-black trouser suit is severe yet elegant as Freida Pinto walks the red carpet lined by paparazzi in Baruch College at the City University in New York.

Hollywood’s arguably most stunning actress is not at a commercial movie event, but has stepped up to speak at the US premiere of Leslee Udwin’s controversial documentary India’s Daughter, a film at the epicentre of an intense debate on sexual discrimination in India. The film, based on the 2012 gang rape and murder of 23-year-old medical student, Jyoti Singh, in New Delhi, triggered nationwide protests and has been banned in India. Sharing the stage with legendary actor Meryl Streep, Freida steps up to the microphone and as another daughter of India, speaks from the heart.

‘Despite the vast improvements in the lives and rights of women across the world… I believe our pride is misplaced when there is one gender on this planet that is yet to be emancipated,’ says the 30-year-old who shot to fame with Slumdog Millionaire. Her latest movie Knight of Cups, which also stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, will be released later this year.

‘There has to be something done about the situation of women in India – we can’t ignore it or think that it’s something that will take care of itself. Women themselves have come forward to make the point very strongly that they want to take control of their future.’ Freida knows that education is the key. ‘But it’s very tricky because education is not a short-term gratification. It’s a long-term plan. And it takes a minimum of 12-15 years for anybody to see the full effect of education on society.

‘But we have to have patience, [it] is very important, and listen to women who are saying: “This is what we want.” They are saying it loudly and they cannot be ignored anymore.’

Freida and Meryl are global ambassadors of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, which joined hands with Vital Voices Global Partnership, an organisation that works towards empowering emerging women leaders, to support the screening of the documentary in the US.

Addressing a 650-plus crowd last month, Freida went on to talk about how women need to come out in support of their own ‘to raise each other up, to make each other’s welfare a priority and to never shame a woman for the choices she makes.

‘It’s when we watch films like India’s Daughter – when we imagine Jyoti’s terrorising, terrifying, heartbreaking and harrowing suffering – that we think of those bright little faces of the girl children we know and that pain becomes almost unbearable,’ she says. ‘The mind just reels at such suffering and there is no other way to react but emotionally. But make no mistake, this is not an incident and this is not an experience that is just limited or restricted to the Third World. First World men and women readily understand that millions of women are subjugated globally.’

Referring to sexual violence being a global phenomenon, Freida says the Western world needs to look at their own society. ‘If they were to do further introspection, they will acknowledge that the same dynamics exist within their own culture.’

Sexual crimes, she says, are not the only sexist problems. She talks of women having financial inequality and that we won’t be able to make progress until the gender pay gap is closed. ‘I’m talking about something that you could possibly place in the more modern world. Something that is more advanced or civilised ... such as the refusal to pay a woman the same as a man for the same job, and there are jobs, but those jobs come in a very strange and tough climate.

‘When a woman from the First World sits in a fishbowl in the male boardroom, it doesn’t feel like it’s her own self-respect that is being eroded when she stays silent or even laughs amidst misogynistic remarks. It feels as if she’s letting her less fortunate sisters across the world drown.

‘I cannot wait for that day when this generation of women and men finally realises that claiming to be a feminist is simply asserting that you share the same spiritual and economic value as your male counterparts – as each other.’

Freida makes it clear that men are crucial to the movement for change. ‘I say let’s take hope from the men. I am my father’s very proud daughter and these men are the torchbearers. These are the men we call to fight to stand up for what is honourable and to speak out vociferously against sexism in the workplace and against violence in the home. We equally call upon men who do not believe in equal rights. This is your fight too, your fight to defeat and transcend your own mindsets. Women don’t ask to be ahead of you or behind you, we just want to be by your side as equals.’

She believes we have to act now to fight sexism and harness the power of anger that Jyoti’s rape and India’s Daughter has created.

‘We have to be the new greatest generation, the generation that makes misogyny and violence against women begin to recede into the past.’ It’s a strong statement from an actor who’s been fighting stereotypes through scripts that are culturally diverse. ‘I don’t want to be a stereotypical Indian girl,’ she says emphatically in an interview with Friday. ‘I want to be the global girl, the global citizen in every film.’

Choosing to portray an orphaned Palestinian girl – who believes education, not violence, is the way forward for her community – in her second film Miral and most recently in Desert Dancer, Freida has continuously strived to build a body of work that is beyond the realms of a formulaic film-making. ‘I love complex characters in life, in films and books; they are always the ones that you want to understand first, which was why I fell in love with my character in Desert Dancer first, even before I fell in love with the script,’ she reveals.

A biopic, Desert Dancer is based on the life of Iranian self-taught dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who along with Elaheh, Freida’s character in the film, forms an underground dance group in Iran during a period when any form of dance was banned.

I’ve had a privileged life, as I come from a world where I’m not stopped from doing what I want to do. I had an education and the freedom to do what I wanted. So what attracted me to the film was the fact that for the first time I had to imagine what would happen if I didn’t have that freedom. The film taught me to enjoy and appreciate my freedom even more,’ she says.

‘I was born in Mumbai, where you’re literally forced to find yourself every minute of the day and not get lost in the crowd and chaos.

‘That survival instinct gave me the confidence to take on a film and to do the promotional tour for Slumdog Millionaire, travelling to various parts of the world for the first time and facing journalists, something that I had never done before. So the confidence came from education that my parents gave me and the environment I was born in.’

And that independent spirit not only reflects in her choice of films, but in her charity work as well. As the brand ambassador for Plan International, Freida has been working tirelessly to create awareness about girl education across the Third World.

‘I have always been a true believer in the power of every individual, especially every girl,’ says Freida. ‘The treacherous web of barriers girls face worldwide is endless. But if we educate and empower girls, they will reach their fullest potential, pulling themselves and their families out of poverty.

‘The situation of women in India cannot be ignored. There are so many women in India who have not benefitted from [the] globalisation and modernisation of the economy as well as the society.

‘So I do hope that the situation changes soon and every woman is given the right to choose their future. That along with education will be the most important step towards emancipating women,’ she says.

A girl from a middle-class family based in Mumbai, Freida, whose parents Frederick and Sylvia Pinto worked hard to raise her and her elder sister Sharon to be independent, has seen her share of struggles as well, whether it was the time before Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, when she spent years knocking at the doors of Bollywood’s film-makers in search of work and being told that she did not look Indian enough, or the past eight years when she’s had to constantly struggle to prove her talent and versatility.

‘Before Slumdog, I used to have a lot of nervous breakdowns. I was willing to give it all up and get into event management,’ says Freida who has a degree in English Literature but always aspired to be in the movies.

Freida signed up with Elite Model Management India and did several modelling assignments before she, along with seven other Elite models, was sent for the Slumdog auditions. ‘I don’t know how many rounds of auditions I must have gone for. It took them almost six months to decide that I was suitable for the role.’

But Slumdog changed it all. ‘There are still a lot of people who just see me as a beautiful girl. But I realise that it is all about time and patience and working hard [before you can make it big]. I sometimes say to myself, I don’t want to be called the Slumdog Millionaire girl any more. I just want to move away from that image, but people won’t let it. It’s because of the love people have for that film that they keep reminding me of it over and over again,’ she says.

Freida credits the movie for bringing her close to Dev Patel, her co-star in the film and her boyfriend until recently. ‘For both Dev [who played the role of Jamal Malik] and me, Slumdog was our first film, and it became so massive that you had to preserve and protect what you had before; that innocence, without getting sucked in. And who better to do it with than someone who knows what you’re thinking? So initially we were merely supportive of each other,’ she says.

And now when they are no longer a couple, would she still do a film with Dev? ‘If we were in another film where we would play love interests or star-crossed lovers, the pressure to deliver the same kind of innocence and rawness [that was visible in Slumdog] would be so high that it’d be 
very hard for us to work in that kind of pressurised environment.

So I think we should not do a film together that is about two lovers. But if the story is a little darker, a bit mature in terms of a role, one in which I play a serial killer for instance, then I would probably do it.’

In an industry where talent and hard work are as important as looks to succeed, Freida relies on her self-confidence to combat the dilemmas of life. ‘I haven’t had to compromise in any way so far. It’s not that difficult to say no when you don’t want to do something,” she says.

Having made a mark in films, Freida has now decided to produce one. ‘I’m not going to talk much right now about it but yes I plan on acting in it. It is, however, a completely new learning curve for me. Taking control of the project and pushing it forward is a great experience,’ she says, giving a glimpse of her fearless spirit.

Taking on new challenges and overcoming them is clearly what Freida enjoys doing and although the disturbing documentary India’s Daughter touched a chord in her, Freida is optimistic of change. ‘We have a new government [in India]. It’s quite promising, because they have quite a few female ministers in the cabinet. And I do hope that the focus is on emancipating women – but across the board...

‘Like every man is given the right, every female should be given the right to do the same. That would be the first and most important step. And education.’

The Interview People

The Interview People

Additional reporting by Mrinal Shekar