The curious case of Freida Pinto

If I were to stop an average person on the street in most countries outside India and ask whether he or she has heard of Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, the answer is likely to be no.

Indians, fueled by their shrill media, will no doubt take umbrage at this, but that’s a hard fact of life.

Our stars are not as important abroad as we think, barring a few pockets where Indian cinema is popular.

India’s most popular acting export today is 26-year-old Freida Pinto, like it or not.

What Hollywood critics say

The quintessentially Mumbai working-class girl had a relatively quiet start to her career, modeling for a couple of years and hosting the English language international travel show "Full Circle" on Zee International.

Then, destiny had its say when Danny Boyle cast her as Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire."

The film was reviled in India, feted abroad, won a clutch of Oscars and grossed the small matter of US$378 million.

It is arguably Pinto who has best capitalized on the film’s success.

She quietly found herself a Hollywood agent, schooled herself in the ways of the West and went on to sign a slew of films with an impressive array of directing talent including the legendary Woody Allen ("You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger"); the acclaimed Julian Schnabel ("Miral"); and the veteran Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Black Gold").

Possibly her most challenging role was for "Miral," in which she played the central character.

“Miral herself is played very engagingly by Freida Pinto as a mischievous and idealistic teenager with an acute sense of natural justice,” wrote Critic Geoffrey McNab in The Independent.

However, most critics can’t get past Pinto’s beauty.

Reviewing "Miral" for The Hollywood Reporter, critic Deborah Young described Pinto as “distractingly attractive.”

“Freida Pinto’s Caroline the pri­matologist is no Dian Fossey, and indeed gives no hints that she has even heard of her, but, man, is she gorgeous,” said the venerable Roger Ebert, critiquing "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" in the Chicago Sun-Times.

What Indians think

In India, reviewers tend to be dismissive of Pinto.

Rashid Irani’s review of "Apes" in the Hindustan Times does not mention Pinto at all, nor is her name in the credits.

Nikhat Kazmi in the Times of India and Sukanya Verma in Rediff damn her with faint praise.

“Freida Pinto stays mostly in the background but does have a piquant charm of her own,” offers Kazmi, while Verma describes the actress as “no more than a pretty distraction.”

The average Indian’s mentality seems to concur with that of the reviewers.

Your average, opinionated Atul, steeped in the delights of Bollywood, tends to think poorly of her acting skills, as my conversations with punters indicate.

This opinion seems to exist in the Indian film industry as well.

“India will never accept Freida Pinto unless she proves herself in Bollywood,” a filmmaker acquaintance told me recently.

In an industry known for broad interpretations of roles and shameless mugging in the name of acting, that’s rich indeed.

Crab mentality

The truth is that the general audience outside India thinks of Pinto as an exotic and beautiful import and as a pleasant addition to their screens.

Abroad, critics are generally accepting of her and are certainly not as harsh on her as they have been on India’s import-that-never-was -- former Miss World and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan -- for her less-than-impressive turn in "The Pink Panther 2."

Indeed, Mike Goodridge of Screen International said that Rai Bachchan was “all at sea” in the film.

Perhaps the poor perception of Pinto in India could be due to subliminal jealousy, arising out of watching the girl-next-door make good, and the proverbial crab mentality.

When A.R. Rahman won a brace of Oscars, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for "Slumdog Millionaire," India, while quick to accept the accept the accolades, did so with a caveat that his scores for Indian films were far superior.

With Pinto there is no such acceptance, as she hasn’t won any major award, yet.

In 2009, Pinto scored a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actress for "Slumdog Millionaire."

As a voting member of the academy, I cast my vote for her, not because she is Indian like me but because I believed that she is the gentle and calm soul of an otherwise frenetic film. She didn’t win.

Detractors will get an opportunity to see Pinto "prove herself" in her upcoming film "Trishna," directed by the celebrated British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom.

The film, alas, though shot entirely in India with a largely Indian cast and crew is based on Thomas Hardy's novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," and will not be the actress’ get out of jail free card.

That will have to be a proper Indian film.

Right now Pinto is part of another global success story as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" grosses north of US$256 million and counting, while she takes a week off to spend with her family in Mumbai. 

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