Everyone knows the story of Slumdog Millionaire. Not just in terms of the plot – involving a young man who lives on the streets of Mumbai and exceeds all expectations on a TV game show – but also the incredible commercial and critical success it garnered worldwide. In a strange case of art imitating life, stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto became instant celebrities. For Pinto in particular, the leap was sudden: Slumdog was her acting debut, for which she went on to receive a Screen Actors Guild award and a BAFTA nomination.
But the former model seems to be taking success in her stride. She’s still very down to earth, despite now working alongside some big Hollywood names. And the roles being offered to her are no less challenging,
as latest film (and possible Oscar contender) Miral testifies – a movie of particular relevance to the Middle East for its focus on the conflict in Palestine. ‘I suppose people here will tend to get more emotional,’ she says of the film, which was screened recently at both the Abu Dhabi and Doha Tribeca Film Festivals, the latter of which providing the venue for our interview. ‘It’s like when Slumdog Millionaire went to India – it was about an Indian in an Indian setting, so people really connected.’
Based on the novel by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, who also wrote the screenplay (inspired by the events of her life), Miral begins in 1948 with the partition and the setting up of the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to help orphaned survivors. Flash forward to 1978 and we meet Pinto’s character, Miral, who has been sent to the institute following her mother’s death. At age 17, she is assigned to teach at a refugee camp, learning the harsh reality of her people’s struggle.
Obviously this is a film that tackles sensitive issues. Was this challenge part of the appeal? ‘We all knew it wasn’t going to be easy,’ Pinto confirms. ‘But you shouldn’t avoid doing something because you live in fear. Every day I went to that set, and I just thought: I’m going to nail this scene and do it right.’ But how easy was this to achieve when she grew up away from the conflict, over in Mumbai? ‘I did find a lot of similarities between India and Pakistan,’ says Pinto, explaining that her own background helped rather than hindered her. ‘When the partition took place there, so many people died on both sides. There is still conflict over this land. The key is acceptance.’
Background research also helped her to adapt to the role. ‘Julian [Schnabel, director] and Rula thought it was very important to send me to Lebanon to live with a family that escaped the conflict, to see the orphanage where Rula grew up, and visit people in the refugee camps,’ Pinto reveals. ‘Refugees are not just numbers, they are real people with stories and lives. Rula told me stories about her life that are not part of the book or the film, so that also helped me to understand the character fully.’
It sounds as though the role may have had a profound effect on the young actress. Was she surprised by the living conditions faced by the refugees? ‘In terms of poverty, no. India has its fair share,’ she says. ‘But in terms of the lack of freedom, yes. There was this one woman who wanted me to marry her son. He had been put in prison for 25 years. Every other girl she meets, she asks this. Is it unreasonable? She just wants her son to be happy. But it’s disturbing to see that people cannot even choose a future for themselves. A child is being taught hatred and violence instead of patience and love.’
It is also interesting to note the reactions to the film that Pinto has witnessed. ‘People who believe in peace have accepted it,’ she says. ‘And people still making peace with the idea of believing in peace, they are dealing with it too. The film has given people an opportunity to speak out, rather than keep it within themselves, and rather than react in ways that are not civil. But the reaction has been varied, and that’s what we want, for people to talk. I think the film is doing what it’s meant to.’
As, indeed, is Pinto, by making more and more films. She will return to the Middle East shortly to shoot another movie, Black Gold, in which she plays an Arabian princess, but before that we’ll get to see her in her next release after Miral… opposite monkeys? ‘I just finished Rise of the Apes with James Franco,’ she says of the big-budget Planet of the Apes prequel out next summer. ‘I play a primatologist. It’s a role I took because I felt I could contribute something – it addresses animal cruelty, which is another big problem in the world. Is it right to conduct testing on animals just because they can’t speak out? I’m an actor, at the end of the day, so I want to employ what I have, my tools, into everything I feel I can get satisfaction out of. That’s why I have never taken a script that I don’t feel completely inclined to.’
Miral is in UAE cinemas from December 2.
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