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EFF Vespa / Contour by Getty Images / Gallo
EFF Vespa / Contour by Getty Images / Gallo

Freida Pinto: "The perfect obscure object of desire"

As Freida Pinto prepares to attend the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, she talks about her latest film roles after her soaring debut in Slumdog Millionaire.

The last time I spoke to Freida Pinto, she cheerfully admitted: "Right now, I'm jobless," and seemed undaunted by the prospect. It was just two years ago at the closing brunch for the Toronto International Film Festival that an unknown movie called Slumdog Millionaire, saved from going direct to DVD by being invited to make its world premiere there, had just picked up the Cadillac People's Choice Award as favourite film. Pinto was so excited she seemed ready to jump out of her shoes.

Two years later, Pinto, 26 on Monday, is a much sought-after actress. She has appeared on People magazine's Most Beautiful People list and Vogue's Top 10 most stylish women, a throwback to her previous career as a model. Woody Allen called her "the perfect obscure object of desire. She's exactly what I wish I saw when I look out the window of my house in Manhattan." She arrives at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this month on the back of a starring role as an idealistic Palestinian schoolgirl in the American director Julian Schnabel's drama Miral.

Onscreen, she changes from a rumbustious yet dutiful schoolgirl and devoted daughter into a strong-willed advocate for Palestine, as she discovers love and a sense of political purpose amid the first Arab-Israeli war. Set between 1948 and the 1990s, the film stars Pinto in the lead role as a teenager whose political conscience is awakened during the war. As with any film linked to the Palestinian struggle, the subject matter is bound to stir up emotions on both sides. So far, reviews of Miral have been lukewarm.

"My character ages emotionally in the movie and a lot of it is a coming-of-age story," says Pinto as we chat in a Toronto hotel room during the festival, where she is representing two movies: Miral and Woody Allen's wry relationship comedy-drama You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Pinto says she is unconcerned by less than glowing early reviews for Miral published during the Venice International Film Festival, where the movie premiered, and in Toronto soon afterwards.

"We always knew from the very beginning this would be a big fight. It's very current subject matter so it's not one that is going to be showered with praise whichever way we go. It's not going to be received favourably by everybody but this is something we were not going to be scared by, or fearful of, and it wasn't going to stop us. "People who believe there can be peace on both sides have accepted this film and that is what matters the most."

It's the humanity of the story about a young girl who tries to follow both her conscience and duty to her family in the midst of conflict and first love that drew Pinto to the role, not the politics, she explains. It's a different Pinto, looking chic in a dusty-pink Nina Ricci ruffled dress, from the unknown who was "jumping around" with excitement at attending her first film festival in 2008, as part of a movie audiences there embraced.

The world followed suit; Slumdog won about 100 film awards and eight Oscars including Best Picture. But the Mumbai-born actress and model is still just as personable and lovely as she was when we first met to talk about her role as the strong-willed teen Latika in Slumdog. If anything, she's even more beautiful, with her natural good looks enhanced with a sophistication that has come after two years in the spotlight. Her broad smile hasn't changed, and if the pressures of work and non-stop travel to promote two films are getting to Pinto, you'd never know it.

now the face of L'Oréal Paris, she is wearing light make-up and a shimmering white shawl around her shoulders to ward off the chill in the air-conditioned hotel room. On her feet are sensible, white flats. Pinto giggles, and admits her feet hurt from wearing heels all day and at parties and red carpet events at night. "My life has changed and for the better," she says. "I don't know, it could have gone the other way, and how I would have taken that I don't know but it's marvellous it has gone in the direction I always hoped and dreamed it would."

Fans will certainly see a different side of Pinto in October's GQ where she has donned skimpy outfits, including some leather ones, for a photo shoot. And there has been online chat speculating that she has been shortlisted to be the next Bond Girl. If her public image is getting a different spin as she establishes herself as an actress, an even bigger part of the life-changing events following her stardom is her new love. She ended a 16-month relationship and subsequent engagement to Rohan Anatao around the time of the Oscars in 2009, amid gossip she was dating her Slumdog Millionaire co-star, the British actor Dev Patel.

Last spring, the couple went public with their romance. Patel was her date for both Toronto red carpets in September and the pair were spotted walking around the city's trendy Yorkville district. When asked if she and Patel, 20, first fell for each other in Toronto two years ago, Pinto laughs and says: "That's a funny question." Hint taken. The private Pinto has no time for rumours, especially old ones.

"We found it amazing the two of us could relate to each other and had this fabulous director Danny Boyle and we had so many things in common," she says, explaining the friendship that sprang up between Patel and her during filming. It is understandable that observers might have thought they were more than friends. She and Patel spent a lot of time together during the festival, doing the rounds of interviews, press conferences and parties, grinning from ear to ear most of the time at their unexpected good fortune.

"It was just such an experience for two people who have so much passion when it comes to acting and to be given this opportunity at the start of their careers, it sounds like a once in a blue moon opportunity and we were blessed to have that," recalls Pinto. "That's the reason we were bouncing around all over the place. We had no idea what was happening but it felt good." Their joy was evident and infectious. During a 2008 interview at the festival, Patel apologised repeatedly for "going on" as he talked about Slumdog. He was so excited at the world premiere the night before that he had jumped to his feet to go onstage for a question and answer session with such enthusiasm, he banged his shin hard enough on the seat in front of him to cause a limp.

But Pinto admitted that life imitated art somewhat with the film You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. She told a website she saw similarities between herself and her breakup and her character, Dia, a woman who doubts her romantic path, and is the object of Josh Brolin's obsession in the film. She wondered if Allen had been inspired by supermarket tabloids to write some scenes. "When I walked into Woody's office and read the scene in the nursery, where Dia confesses for the first time that she has doubts about what she is getting into, I was like, 'Has someone been reading the gossip magazines to Woody?' " she told contactmusic.com

As for Miral, Pinto feels great sympathy for the character. "I feel her intentions were not bad from the beginning. She didn't want to hurt anybody; her teacher, her father. She was at that age where you can be so confused and need guidance and still be misled by her peers." The movie follows the lives of four women, all of whom have dealings with a real-life character called Hind Husseini (played by Hiam Abbass), who helped found an orphanage and school after finding dozens of orphaned children in the streets of Jerusalem.

When asked how much of the history of the region and conflict there she is familiar with, Pinto replies: "Not much, I would say. As far as politics are concerned I still know only as much as the character needed to know. For me, it's the human story that is moving and makes me sad." the film is based on the book by the Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, who has much in common with the character of Miral, Pinto says she admires how Jebreal "made something of herself," studying in Italy and to become "this amazing prolific journalist" and author.

Meanwhile, the actress who was jobless two years ago, is very busy indeed. Her next movie, the Planet Of The Apes prequel Rise Of The Apes, is based on fantasy rather than history, but Pinto sounds just as passionate about the subject matter because it deals with protecting the environment, something she's concerned about. She admits she was so pro-green as a youngster, she used to chastise litterbugs in the street.

She co-stars with James Franco and John Lithgow in Rise Of The Apes, playing a primatologist. Unlike the prolific '60s-'70s Planet Of The Apes franchise, there are no talking simians in this version, although Pinto was full of praise for the work of the acclaimed British actor Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord Of the Rings trilogy), who plays a chimp named Caesar. "When I was little and when I first saw the movies, I laughed. I couldn't understand why the apes were talking," says Pinto. "I didn't understand how close we are to our primate brothers and sisters. This is a very environmentally conscious film with a very beautiful message."

What a difference two years make, and yet, some things about Pinto remain the same. such as how well-grounded she is. When we last talked she was excited that Canadian relatives, whom she had never met previously, were at the Toronto festival premiere for Slumdog. This time, she has similar plans for Miral and her extended family. And she loves being back in Toronto, the city that first embraced Slumdog.

"It was even better," she says of walking the red carpet here again two years later. "The acceptance; the fans being so excited to come back and watch another film and it didn't matter whether it was a comedy of errors like the Woody Allen film, or a real-life drama."

Miral is showing at the Emirates Palace Hotel on Thursday at 6.30pm and at Cinestar 4 Marina Mall on Saturday, October 23 at 7.15pm.

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