‘Directors couldn’t go past what they saw on the outside’ … Pinto. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
She became a star in Slumdog Millionaire – before being cast in a string of regrettable roles. Now she’s in a brutal sex-trafficking drama and speaking out about skin lightening and shortsighted directors
by Simon Hattenstone – The Guardian
Freida Pinto’s role in her new film Love Sonia is shocking. She plays a desperate sex worker in a brutal tale of trafficking. Rashmi is complex, edgy and selfish – everything you wouldn’t expect of a Pinto character. After all, the Indian actor, who made her name in Danny Boyle’s phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire, has spent much of her career playing eye candy. And she is sick of it.
Love Sonia is relentless. A debt-ridden father sells his teenage daughter Preeti to a landlord, who then trafficks her to a brothel in Mumbai. Her sister Sonia, brilliantly played by newcomer Mrunal Thakur, goes in search of her, and is also ensnared in the trafficking web. She is anally raped to preserve her value as a virgin. Having lost her virginity, she is stitched so she can once again be sold as untouched. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do.
Pinto’s older sex worker appears to befriend Sonia, but ultimately betrays her to protect herself. This is a world without love or loyalty and reflects a stark reality. Last year, India was named the most dangerous country for women in terms of human trafficking, by a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 550 experts on women’s issues.
Love Sonia has been 10 years in the making. Pinto was first shown an early version of the script by director Tabrez Noorani the day after she finished shooting Slumdog Millionaire. Noorani, a line producer on Slumdog Millionaire, wrote Love Sonia after helping to rescue trafficked women from brothels. But it took another decade to finesse the script, get financial backing and find the right Sonia.
After Slumdog Millionaire, in which Pinto played Latika, a street kid described as “the most beautiful girl in the world”, she was keen for a more demanding role. But in hindsight, she says she wasn’t ready for Love Sonia. She was too unworldly. “I thought it was exaggerated when I read the script. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.” Later, when she met trafficked sex workers advising on the film, she began to think that, if anything, the story had been understated. She winces when she recalls a question she asked one of them. “I said: ‘Hypothetically speaking, if you had a chance to leave this world, let’s say you fell in love and found somebody who’d treat you right for once, would you escape?’ And she said to me: ‘Madam, love only exists in your world. In my world, there is just betrayal.’”
The trajectory of Pinto’s career in the years after Slumdog certainly didn’t suggest she would ever make a hard-hitting film about sex trafficking. Time after time, she played the vapid love interest, characters so underwritten that they struggled to be one-dimensional. So in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Josh Brolin’s author, Roy, spends his time staring longingly out of the window at Pinto’s Dia in the flat opposite. When he confesses this to her, she says: “I’ve always wanted to be someone’s muse.” In Terence Mallick’s Knight of Cups, she is a pouting femme fatale who states: “I don’t want to wreak havoc in men’s lives any more.” In Miral, directed by Julian Schnabel, she plays a Palestinian heroine whose boyfriend tells her she has “beautiful eyes”, while an Israeli interrogator tells her: “You have a beautiful face … you won’t recognise it when you get out of here.” Some of the world’s best-known directors have been so fixated on her looks that they forgot to create a character for her. “They couldn’t go past what they saw on the outside,” Pinto says. “And that’s their problem, not mine, right, because I know what I can bring to the table as talent.”
It has been a strange, decade-long career, including an unexplained extended break. Meanwhile, off-screen she has been an assertive force for good, consistently campaigning for the rights of women. Does she see a contradiction between her feminism and the films she has made? “Completely! There was no way I agreed with so much that I did in my early career.”
Pinto takes me through some of her experiences, with jaw-dropping honesty. She loved working with Brolin on the Allen film (“Josh taught me to relax because I would get really worked up before each take – I was too nervous to breathe and my body would stiffen”), but has nothing positive to say of her part. “I was just the muse, the ingenue.” Would she work again with Allen, who has been accused by his daughter Dylan of sexual assault (an allegation he denies)? “No. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t work with him because I’m in solidarity with women who have come out with their stories, whether they are proven or not. I’m just going to stick to what my gut instinct tells me. I’m 34 years old, I’ve worked for 11 years in this industry, I’m not desperate and I will never be desperate.”
Then it is on to another unhappy experience, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, made in 2011. Pinto was looking forward to playing a smart, independent-minded primatologist. But it didn’t work out that way. “I felt completely undermined as the only female perfomer in the film who wasn’t given a task other than to be a primatologist in frickin’ high heels and follow the men around. Have you seen Jane Goodall wearing high heels and running on the Golden Gate Bridge? I don’t think so. I spoke to one of the producers and asked why I was put in high heels because it didn’t make sense for my character – if she was so hands-on with animals, she needed freedom of movement and her body language needed to be different. I wish I’d been more confident in putting my case forward back then, but I remember asking him what his reference was and I was told Megan Fox from Transformers and I was like – that is a completely different film.” Again, she doesn’t write off the experience – she got to work with some of her favourite actors, including Andy Serkis and John Lithgow – but she does write off her role in the film.
Pinto is not finished yet. Now we are on to Black Gold, a historical epic about the scramble for oil in the Arabian desert in the 1920s. “In Black Gold, what was I? Like a princess who had no say, who was just in love … I can’t even remember the story, that’s how bad it is.” And she is really trying hard to remember her character now. “Oh my God! What was my role? I have no frickin clue! Oh my God, that’s terrible.” In 30 years of interviewing, I have never heard somebody trash their career so comprehensively – or honestly.
Pinto is on a brief visit to Britain from Los Angeles, where she now lives, to promote Love Sonia. We meet at the central London hotel where she is staying. She arrives quietly, orders a camomile tea and gets on with it. Pinto is, of course, gorgeous; slightly built, but strong-looking. She is also bright, intense and combative. In her tracksuit top and bottoms and surprisingly large trainers (size eight and a half), she resembles a Hollywood action hero. Her accent is a weird global confection – cut-glass English, Indian, American, with an upward Aussie inflection. She says people tell her she sounds South African.
Pinto was born in Mumbai (then still Bombay) to Mangalorean Catholics – her mother was a school principal, her father a bank manager. She went to convent school and was a confident, outspoken girl. She says she soon felt stymied by the dogma of the church. “I was 13 or 14 when I heard a priest talk about homosexuality in a sermon. He asked us to pray for them through this illness, this sickness, what they’re going through, hoping that they would come out the other side, finding the answer in Jesus. After mass, I questioned him. I said: ‘What makes you think it’s an illness?’”
Her parents worried that she was too opinionated, and she admits at times she was. “I was very candid; a bit too honest. When I was six or seven years old, there was this young boy, probably about 16, who sang a Christmas carol during Sunday mass, and he was terrible. He came over to wish the family happy Christmas and I said: ‘Hey, you sang terribly at mass today, you shouldn’t sing.’ And my mum was like: ‘Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed, I’m so sorry that my daughter is so rude.’” Would she do that now? “Of course not because I’ve been told not to do it, or I’ll find a better way of putting it, but I was a bit too blunt as a child, and that was terrible. I hurt the poor boy’s feelings.” How did he react? “Apparently he was very upset. My mum told me he never sang again after that.”
She studied English literature, and after graduating in 2005 went into modelling. Two years later, she was cast in Slumdog Millionaire, despite having no acting experience. The film won eight Oscars, including best picture and director. She and her co-star, British actor Dev Patel, were suddenly world famous. Everybody wanted a share of their fairytale – they became a couple in real life, and were together for six years. Pinto found herself in demand across the world – not just as an actor, but also to flog products. In 2009, she signed a lucrative contract to became the face of L’Oréal.
Life really was amazing. “I was riding the waves and going to all the fashion weeks on the front row. And travelling first class, and holidays and blah blah blah. And every director I wanted to meet wanted to meet me too.”
And then they offered her parts. And time after time they disappointed. For the first time in her life, she lost confidence. Did she feel exposed because she hadn’t trained as an actor? “Yes, I felt like people around me knew more how to do things. All I had was instinct. I lost the innocence that comes with confidence. The blind faith. Spontaneity.”
Even the films she was proud of prompted uncomfortable questions – in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, based on Tess of the D’urbervilles, she wanted to know why she had to be so passive. When she was cast as the eponymous Palestinian heroine of Miral, she wondered why. “I worried that I wasn’t Arab enough to play the role, so how were they going to convince the audience?” Again, she stresses the positives – Schnabel treated her with respect and she learned about the politics of the Middle East. In Desert Dancer, she was cast as an Iranian, and again asked why. But she knew the answer really. “It’s the same reason Ridley Scott was questioned on why they had non-Egyptian actors playing Egyptian roles in Gods of Egypt. To get the film financed and sold, they came to the person they thought was closest to that culture. Having said that, Iran and India have nothing in common. We’re two different parts of the world.”
Did she ever think of sticking two fingers up at the film industry and walking way? “Yeah, I did. And it cost me two and a half years. I didn’t work for two and a half years.” At 28, she says, she had an existential crisis. “I thought: is this something I really want to do, or am I just doing it because I got this amazing start to my career and now this is all I know how to do?”
So she waited for a good job to come along. And waited. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a job again because out of sight could be so out of mind.” Was she offered lots of roles? “Yes, but – trust me – they were not worth my time.” Does she regret turning any of them down? “No. The films were big, but the roles were not good enough to regret.”
I ask if she ever struggled for money. “No, no. That was the saving grace. I had a lucrative brand endorsement deal – a seven-year contract that kept me afloat. I’m grateful to L’Oréal for ever.” In 2011, her L’Oréal contract came under scrutiny when it was suggested that the company had lightened her skin in a campaign. Had they Photoshopped the image? L’Oréal denies altering her skin tone but she says: “I’m sure they did, because that’s not the colour of my skin you saw in a few of the campaigns.”
Did she complain? “I said to my agent after the first controversy that I would like to see the pictures before, and I would like to be able to question them on colour correction.” She also insisted on having a clause written into her contract. “All the brands, including L’Oréal, have a skin-lightening range that they sell in India and I made them put it in my contract that I would not touch that with a barge pole. If you don’t put it in your contract before you sign on, they can come and you will be compelled to do it.” After she protested about the skin-lightening, she says, it never happened again. (L’Oréal has been approached for a comment.)
Pinto has lived in Los Angeles for nine years, and says she feels at home there; her boyfriend, adventure photographer Cory Tran, is also LA-based. She often spends time in Mumbai, where her parents and sister still live.
In 2017, she returned to the screen with Guerrilla, a TV drama about Britain’s black power movement. Pinto’s underground activist Jas Mitra was a formidable character, leading from the front. She says this was the start of her reinvention as an actor. At one point Jas says to one of the men in her life: “The first chance you get, you reduce me to my looks.” I tell her it feels personal – that it could be aimed at directors such as Allen or Mallick. “Yep!” she says, with a broad smile. She says that bit of dialogue was the result of a conversation she had with Guerrilla director John Ridley. “I talked to John about looks and how they hold people back and I told him how crazy it is to be a little fed up to be told you’re beautiful. I know I sound ungrateful, but I’m not. I’m very grateful for what I have, but I’m fed up of hearing other people tell me that or remind me of that.”
As for now, Pinto could not be happier that nobody is likely to come out of Love Sonia discussing her looks. On its release in India, the film was not been warmly received. “People haven’t welcomed a film that exposes the underbelly of the country. It hasn’t done well.” But she says she is not going to judge the film’s success by its box-office takings – highlighting the trafficking scandal is far more important.
In many ways, Pinto is just starting out as an actor – and still has much to prove. But despite everything she has said today, she insists there is nothing she would change. If she hadn’t done all the naff work, she says, she wouldn’t be where she is now – and it’s great to have got her existential crisis out of the way. “I’m glad the reality check happened. Now I think I can finally say I’ve figured things out for myself.”
Love Sonia is on general release