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Dream come true

You could say that Freida Pinto is playing out a big screen fantasy these days — except that it’s happening to her in real life. Even in her wildest dreams she never imagined that she’d get a break into films so soon, and that too with ace British director Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame.

Now ever since Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire hit the festival circuit a few months ago, Pinto has been noticed all over the world. The film has won over critics and audiences, and has just been nominated for four Golden Globe awards too.

“It’s fantastic. When you’re filming, you’re just working together. But it hits you when everyone in a theatre gives you a standing ovation,” says Pinto.

That first happened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2008, where Slumdog won the People’s Choice Award. Since then, Pinto has been hopping across continents, participating in film festivals and lapping up media attention. She has also signed up with a talent agency in Los Angeles.

Slumdog, based on diplomat Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, is an almost Dickensian tale about three orphans from Dharavi. There’s Jamal, played by British actor Dev Patel, his outlaw brother Salim, played by Madhur Mittal and Latika, played by Pinto. Jamal enters the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati in a bid to find his long lost love, Latika, even as she struggles to break free from the clutches of a ganglord.

For Pinto, it began in April 2007, when the film’s casting director Loveleen Tandon, came to Mumbai. Pinto was with a modelling agency then.

Trainspotting and The Beach were already two of my favourite films and I was like there’s no way Danny Boyle’s coming down to India,” recounts Pinto.

At the first audition before Tandon, Pinto enacted what she calls the “kitchen scene”. “One month later, Loveleen called up saying ‘You’ve been shortlisted. Come back for another audition — with Danny Boyle’,” she recalls.

Pinto was extremely nervous about her first meeting with Boyle, but the friendly director “broke the ice” immediately. Then began her journey in what she calls the “Danny Boyle Audition Acting School, the best acting school ever”. For Pinto auditioned for six long months, playing the same kitchen scene repeatedly.

She had faced the camera as a model before. “But I was fearful that acting is different. That’s why I feel the six months of auditioning helped me get into the skin of the character,”she says.

And all through, she never gave up. “By the end of it, it had become an obsession. I’m never the kind who gives up anyway,” she says.

Not surprisingly, when she got the part, she “hit the roof literally”. “I think I screamed for two days straight,” she says.

Pinto identified with the typically Mumbai story of Slumdog as she’s a “pucca Bombay girl”. “I keep saying that unknowingly I’ve put in 23 years of research,” she says.

Her character, Latika, starts out as a feisty stubborn girl — two other actors play the younger Latika — who later becomes embroiled with a gangster. “It’s a story of struggle and change. Latika’s one dynamic character,” says Pinto.

Personally, Pinto identified most with the feisty, younger Latika — she’s extremely independent and began working as an event manager at 15 to earn her own keep. But in the film, she plays an older, subdued and “far more subtle” Latika. “To get into the skin of that character was the biggest challenge,” says Pinto.

But Boyle helped her a lot. “He kept reminding me that I couldn’t be strident and made me understand the character. I used to literally psyche myself saying ‘Don’t fight’. And sometimes Danny would say something and I would agree very submissively. I realised then that the character becomes a part of you,” recalls Pinto.

Pinto’s scenes are mostly with Patel though, and she didn’t get a chance to act with either Anil Kapoor or Irfan Khan, who’re also in the film.

Pinto always wanted to be an actor. “As a kid, I would stand in front of the mirror and perform various roles,” she says. She had an ordinary childhood growing up in Malad, a Mumbai suburb. Her mother is a school principal and her father is a banker, while her elder sister works in television.

But she says she inherited her performance genes. “I think my entire family is into performance, my cousins have always been part of bands or been singing,” she says.

Naturally, she took part in school and college dramas. “The dark roles really intrigued me but for some reason, I got all the sweet, over-the-top roles,” she recalls.

She decided to pursue acting as a profession after playing a “neuter god” in a college play — she did a B.A. in literature from St Xavier’s College — and winning an award for it. “That gave me hope that maybe this is the right decision,” she says.

Since she had no film contacts, she decided to model after college. “I wanted to get into acting but since no other portals were opening for me, I thought modelling would be a good decision,” she says.

For three years, Pinto modelled, doing mostly print ads for brands like Hutch and BE. Within a year of modelling, she also began anchoring a travel show, Full Circle, on Zee English’s international channel. “It was fun,” she says.

Doing her first film with Boyle, Pinto admits, has “spoilt me rotten”. “The second one is going to be more pressurising and daunting. But I don’t fear anything,” she says.

She has already received “quite a few” scripts for international projects from her agency in Los Angeles and is open to acting in Hindi films too. “I want to do something challenging,” she says. For now, though, she’s looking forward to Slumdog’s India release next year even as she continues to savour every moment of her “dream debut”.       

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