The Curious Case of Freida Pinto


First things first. Seldom, if ever, has any actress invited such a range of strong reactions — from total indifference to wild raves — or projected such an intriguing image in the public domain as Freida Pinto. The 27-year-old Slumdog Millionaire star who shot to international fame in 2008 after the film garnered monster global acclaim and a clutch of prestigious awards, including the to-die-for sweep of the coveted Oscars, ironically remains largely unsung and unknown in the land of her birth.

Bollywood junkies in her hometown Mumbai are amused and bewildered by the raves the Mumbai-born and raised, Mangalorean Catholic continues to receive from respected critics and esteemed directors abroad. Theater director and filmmaker Feroz Abbas Khan [Gandhi, My Father] is one of them. “For me, Freida Pinto is a spectacular accident, a dazzlingly lucky by-product of a hugely successful film that grabbed popular imagination I have to admit that, like most, I remain mystified by all the attention she is receiving from the West. Strictly, as a director, I find absolutely nothing in her that is either extraordinary or interesting in terms of personality, talent or looks. She appears like someone available by the truckloads anywhere in suburban Mumbai! In Slumdog too, what great shakes did she do? I am sorry, but I just don’t get it …”

Fair enough, but obviously Hollywood did and does. Internationally revered directors like Woody Allen, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Jacques Annaud sought her out for their projects, such as You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger; Miral and Black Gold. She featured prominently in the list of Most Beautiful People, Top 99 Most Desirable Women, Most Stylish Women, Most Beautiful Faces in the hottest glam mags there. On the acting front too, she scooped up a slew of prestigious awards and nominations — BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, Palm Springs International Film Festival, MTV Award for Best Kiss! — to support her glam, exotic image.

Khan acknowledges it all but suggests that most of it probably has to do with the “flavor-of-the-day” factor. He believes that in the West [read: Hollywood] the color white is not as hotanymore [Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Antonio Bandera] and so someone like Pinto is cool and just what the doc ordered. Dusky, slim, flashing eyes, wide mouth, she symbolizes eastern exotica, full-on!

“Also, the Slumdog effect should never be underestimated. Its incredible success, the magic that its poverty-porn pitch created among mesmerized viewers in the west, its stark, raw realism … and in the middle of it all, her character Latika, petite, fragile, with her quiet charm, all lost in love in a violent, ugly, cruel world… Danny Boyle’s sharp eyes for what sells in the west catapulted the film into a different stratosphere — taking Freida Pinto along! The fact that nothing of this kind remotely happened in India is indicative of the way we perceived and consumed the Slumdog Millionaire phenomenon here, as opposed to the west.”

However, Khan is quick to give credit to the young star for the way she’s handled her career. “Post the Slumdog tsunami, she’s kept her head, read the writing on the wall, got herself great agents — along with getting lucky with some A-list filmmakers and marketed herself brilliantly. Today, I think she’s aced both Ash Rai Bachchan and Mallika Sherawat in the Hollywood race by miles! Full marks to her. In such an insanely competitive market, to carve a niche with such modest talent, is indeed fantastic and I mean it as a compliment.”

Cut to India and Bollywood. Three years on, after Slumdog Millionaire, its amazing that nothing of any sigifnicance has come from Bollywood, her home turf, even after all the accolades and awards from the biggest and best from their baap, Hollywood! She has been quoted as saying: “Back home they don’t really know who I am and probably don’t take me seriously as an actress. Yes, I did get a few scripts to read but have never been approached directly by any major Bollywood Film-maker to do a film. Frankly, I don’t think I fit the bill … the image of the typical heroine. Hollywood has definitely accepted me more willingly than India. I am not famous there. I don’t get mobbed or chased around!”

Critic Saibal Chatterjee, however, is delighted with her predicament and thinks that God has been extra kind to keep Freida Pinto away from Bollywood. “She’s been incredibly fortunate in not having to do anything with the masala factory — by accident or design — because that would have ruined her completely! They’d tart her up, get her to sing, dance, maybe do an item number — the new disease — sensationalize her Dev Patel connection and offer her nothing more than an ornamental role, totally without substance. Thank god for the color of her skin which also must have played a part. The Katrinas and Kareenas are fair-skinned and Pinto is spot-on when she feels she could be a misfit in that environment. Agreed, not every role she’s done in the west is meaningful and solid, but look at the banners, projects and buzz that these films created and of course the name and reputation of top line directors! Can you compare Karan Johar or Adi Chopra with Woody Allen?”

Chatterjee believes that Bollywood is losing by not inviting and leveraging this international star’s talent, like Western directors have. “Problem is that these Bollywood guys are so one-dimensional, tunnel-viewed and complacent … thrilled with their Bodyguards, Singhams, Band Baja Baraat and Zindagi Na Milega Dobara! They have no interest or knowledge of what cinema, even commercially, can do. No wonder, beyond the Diaspora, no one gives a damn about the B-town products. When was the last time we ever won awards and acclaim — with a global not Asian audience — at a big-ticket international meet? Ms. Pinto should ignore Bollywood totally if she wants to grow as an actress — both in stature and star-power She should never feel bad that it didn’t work for her, in masala-land. Never ever!”

Khan counters: “She is unlikely to ever attract Bollywood directors, because she neither has the glamor and sex appeal of a Kat, Karena or Priyanka or the power-house talent of plain-Janes’ like Konkona Sen Sharma, Shahana Goswami or Vidya Balan. She’s right — where will they fit her in? It’s a different scene in the West, because their vision and perception of good looks, sex appeal and stardom in cinema is different.”

At the end of the day, can’t win ‘em all. Did Naseer Shah, Irfaan Khan, Om Puri, Ash Rai Bachchan, Mallika Sherawat, or earlier, Kabir Bedi, Victor Banerjee or anyone who ever went to Hollywood ever make it big? No. Freida Pinto is India’s biggest export to hit Hollywood. Anirban Das, managing director of Kwan, the management company handling Pinto’s endorsement in India, is categorical that “we’re not pitching her as an Indian girl in international films. Freida Pinto is a global face.”

Presently, riding the global success of her super-smash hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed over $250 million and counting in the US alone, and with Immortals and Black Gold to be released soon, the girl from Malad is well past slumdog millionaire.

She is reportedly open to an interesting Bollywood script, but is skeptical about their reaction and attitude to her global stardom. As for not making it big in the local industry, she needn’t lose too much sleep. She can rest assured that somewhere, sometime, most female stars of any worth in B-town — if they are brutally honest — will wonder what Latika Pinto has that has made her such a global hottie, that she doesn’t. Then, recovering after being suitably buoyed up by chamchas, flunkies, fans and other cutlery, she will put on a mask of superiority, arrogance and condescension to sneer: Freida who?

But that is set to change because Pinto has just inked a two-year endorsement deal with a fashion apparel brand for $7 million, the highest any Indian female celebrity has been paid. Gushes Kwan’s Das, who handled the endorsements. “Brand Freida stands for very rare, unique and irreplaceable values and imagery, making her the ideal choice for any brand with global appeal and Indian focus.”

Cry your heart out Bolly babes!

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