THE STAR INDIA DOESN'T WANT

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By Hollywood can't have enough of the actress from Mumbai, whose new film Trishna has created a stir. But in Bollywood, Freida Pinto is quite a nobody. Just what's the problem, ask Manjula Sen and Amit Roy
  • Published 6.11.11
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She is coming out of a New York gym, wearing the uniform of the archetypal Hollywood star: dark glasses, tight leggings and clutching the regulation accessory, a bottle of water. The picture — published recently in The Daily Mail, the English tabloid — doesn’t really need a caption. Most readers know Freida Pinto when they see her.

But the woman in the golden sheath flanked by four male achievers on the cover of an Indian men’s magazine looks a bit remote. Actor Shah Rukh Khan looms large with businessman Kumaramangalam Birla. Musician A.R. Rahman is there, as is politician Jyotiraditya Scindia. The men are instantly recognisable. But then, Freida Pinto isn’t quite a homegrown star.

Yet Pinto’s list of co-stars reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. She’s acted with James Franco, Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins, to name just a few. In less than four years after she debuted in the Goliathan Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, she has worked in seven foreign films, including a Woody Allen outing and three upcoming releases with directors Jean-Jacques Annaud (Black Gold), Michael Winterbottom (Trishna) and Tarsem (Immortals).

Trishna, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles transposed to Rajasthan, is a complex and visually stunning movie. But Indians who saw the film when it was screened recently at the London Film Festival did not warm to it; nor, in many cases, to Freida.

Before Trishna, she played the female lead with Franco in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes which raked in $453 million worldwide. But that didn’t cause much of a murmur in India either. Even now, this international export is conspicuous by her absence in any Hindi film project.

There is none of the breathlessness that accompanied actress Aishwarya Rai’s poorly received forays into Hollywood (Pink Panther 2, The Last Legion) and a handful of crossover films with Indian backdrops. Nor are superstars and industrialists queuing up to host parties for Pinto every time she is in town as they would for a Hugh Jackman, Will Smith and Sylvester Stallone, or a Liz Hurley, Goldie Hawn and Paris Hilton.

Pinto — arguably the biggest global star from India — is uniquely invisible in the Indian filmosphere. Actor Anil Kapoor, her co-star in Slumdog, believes she will be a big hit in Bollywood if she gets a suitable role. “She is a beautiful, stunning and sexy actress,” he asserts.

Bollywood’s lukewarm response to her is a little curious, for India has always feted those who found stardom elsewhere. Once upon a time in India, any artist who received acclaim in the West was immediately warmly embraced. Witness Uday Shankar, whose dancing career took off when he was picked up by the legendary Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and performed Radha Krishna in a duet with her at Covent Garden in London way back in 1923. But Slumdog has not brought the same acceptance for Freida.

“My periscope does not pick her up,” admits social theorist and cultural critic Ashish Nandy. “She is not a factor in Mumbai,” adds director and critic Khalid Mohamed.

Some argue that India — more confident in the post-globalised era than ever before — no longer needs a patronising pat on the back from the West to know its own heroes. And now that India is seemingly shining, not everybody is comfortable when the West aims its arc lights on issues such as poverty — which Slumdog revelled in.

“She will have to break the mould of Slumdog to break through. Indian audiences have a huge ego. They see Freida Pinto as a foreign element owing to the Slumdog factor,” says Lalit Mohan Joshi, who founded the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London. “Freida Pinto’s lack of appeal in Mumbai cinema is partly due to the failure of Slumdog Millionaire in India,” he suggests.

There’s more. If Indians were once eager to second a Western endorsement of an unknown export, these days they are happier when it rediscovers someone India has already feted. Take the difference between the celebratory reactions to Arundhati Roy’s Booker award and the indifferent treatment meted out to Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning White Tiger, described by historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam as “another brick to the patronising edifice.” Roy became a name in India after her book The God of Small Things came out. So when she won the award, she was well known. The unknown Adiga didn’t just live abroad, but seemingly poked fun at sundry Indians in his book.

Pinto’s problem too was that she was not from Bollywood. She had no film pedigree before she debuted with an Academy Award director in a foreign film set in India that became the sleeper hit of 2008. “The West discovered her before we did, it pipped our show,” explains social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. “She has been getting roles; so India feels cheated.”

He could have a point there, for her Slumdog co-actor Anil Kapoor — who also went on to build a career in Hollywood after the film — was an established Bollywood star years before Hollywood came calling. Not surprisingly, the response to his Hollywood foray was far more laudatory.

“Look at the fuss we made of Anil Kapoor. We were full of him,” says writer and critic Shanta Gokhale.

There are other reasons India in general and Bollywood in particular are still to embrace Pinto. It’s not just the success of Danny Boyle’s film worldwide, but Pinto’s looks too are deemed “international”. Her skin tone can represent diverse ethnicities (and thus extend her market) but doesn’t have the alabaster appeal that is popular in her home country which has seen the value of the fairness cream market cross Rs 2,200 crore. “She is a very ordinary person. We want superheroes. Ordinary people don’t interest us.” says Visvanathan.

What’s surprising however is that Bollywood, which worships at the altar of Hollywood, is still not laying out the red carpet for her. “If she had seized the moment after Slumdog, she may have made it in Bollywood. But she chose to go the Hollywood route,” says Mohamed. “But I think if she was to do a role with Aamir or Shah Rukh or Salman Khan she would come into prominence.”

It’s not lack of opportunity, stresses Anirban Das Blah, CEO of KWAN, which represents Pinto. “She has been offered films several times with the Khans. The biggest Bollywood film that will release next year was first offered to her. But I won’t take names. The fact is that a Freida Pinto film cannot be released only in India. I don’t see her as a Bollywood actress at all.”

But why aren’t Indian filmmakers lining up for her time? Directors Anees Bazmee, Anil Sharma and Santosh Sivan all echo the thought that she is busy with her international assignments. “She is beautiful and talented; there is no reason she won’t succeed,” says Sivan.

Filmmaker Rakesh Roshan who has been searching for the female villain with unconventional looks opposite Hrithik in Krissh 3 says he did not consider Pinto. “Who knows why she is not in Bollywood? She may not be too keen to do films in Hindi as yet,” he says.

Indeed, if Mother India hasn’t called out to Freida, neither has she made much of an effort to play the dutiful daughter. Periodically, she returns to Mumbai to see her parents and her sister but, like her one-time fiancé Rohan Antao, everything else back home got dumped.

The Freida of today is not the shy and soft-spoken Freida of 2008 who came to London to promote Slumdog. Today she is super confident, speaks assertively at press conferences and has picked up traces of an American accent. It does not seem this girl is too bothered about not being loved by Bollywood.

When complimented on her excellent Hindi in Trishna, she did not take the chance to pitch for Hindi movies. She hinted she liked doing Western movies set in India.

“For me, going back to India, doing a film in India — it could be directed by an English filmmaker or an American or Japanese or whoever — the story is still Indian for me,” she said. “I am still doing an Indian film. For me it doesn’t really matter whether the cast and crew are Indian or English. The story matters.”

In India, things are slowly changing for Pinto, says Blah. “People here being dismissive of her — we used to feel that a lot earlier,” he says. “They would say she was not a great actor, had a small role in Slumdog. But remember, she was picked by Woody Allen. If anyone knows cinema, it is Allen.”

He, however, believes that Pinto is too big for the domestic market. Businesswise too, he adds, it doesn’t make sense to have too many brand endorsements with Freida in India. “She is aspirational — not for the mass market which can’t afford her. She is not selling to the rickshawallah in Lucknow or Kanpur.”

But for Pinto, seemingly, the debate on what she stands for is a no-brainer. “At the end of the day, it’s cinema. What we do is for the world to see; it is not just for a country or one set of people,” she says.

Additional reporting by S. Ramachandran