Freida Pinto on Love Sonia: It was a privilege to work with phenomenal actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha
Frieda Pinto plays a sharp-tongued sex worker in Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia
Danny Boyle’s Academy Award-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) made Freida Pinto (who played the sweet, shy Latika) an overnight star creating a direct route to Hollywood but it didn't bring her the roles she knew she deserved. Pinto, who was born and raised in Mumbai, returned to the city in 2011 to film Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, and now after seven years her third Mumbai-set film, Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia, has released in theatres. She plays a sharp-tongued sex worker in the movie.
Love Sonia explores a global trafficking ring through the experiences of two sisters. The cast includes Mrunal Thakur, Richa Chadha, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Adil Hussain, Mark Duplass and Demi Moore. And as she readies herself for the interview, quashing everyone’s doubts about the language, the opinionated actress, with a rebellious streak, says, “Why wouldn’t I speak in Hindi? Why would I be in a film like Love Sonia if I couldn’t speak in Hindi?”
Pinto may have had many releases after Slumdog such as Miral (2010), You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), Immortals (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2013), Knight of Cups (2015), the six part British drama miniseries Guerrilla (2017) and The Path (2018), but she is only now beginning to feel comfortable in her own skin and is open to more opportunities in Indian films as well.
What attracted you to Love Sonia and what kind of research went into it?
There is a level of strength, a complexity and craziness to my character Rashmi. She is a survivor, and her way of surviving is making sure that no one else rises. The director wanted to keep the film as authentic as possible. Most research has been done by Mrunal Thakur, who plays Sonia. She actually went to the red-light district in Kolkata to get first-hand stories after spending some time with the sex workers.
My research is of 10 years. When Tabrez finished Slumdog (as line producer), he gave me the script saying he wants to direct this film. He had already done five-year research on it. I found the script quite moving and was immediately committed to it. A lot of things has still not changed, the vulnerability associated with sex trafficking and human trafficking remains the same. I had to spend as much time with Tabrez as possible to know what stories the girls had told him. The costumes were as authentic as possible. Our clothes came from the same shops from where the girls from the red-light district purchased their clothes. We have seen many films on trafficking but I feel this is the most genuine of them all.
All your other co-actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Rajkummar Rao work in Bollywood films here, so was there any difference in their approach, or your interactions on the sets?
No, absolutely not. We connected with each other as artistes. You take an actor from India or any part of the world, at the end of the day when you have to commit to humanising and becoming a character, it’s all the same. Manoj and Richa are phenomenal actors. It’s a great honour and privilege to work with them. If I was working solely in India, the kind of career I would like to have is Richa’s because that is very wholesome and satisfying. She is very candid and I like the fact that she isn’t afraid. We’re all aware about the work we did. Mrunal, for her first movie, is beyond phenomenal. I don’t remember having that kind of confidence when I entered the industry.
How is it being an Indian actor in Hollywood? You had once said that you felt lost after Slumdog Millionaire?
I felt lost because there was too much happening. Right after Slumdog, in a span of three years I ended up doing 11 films which is unheard for an actress who breaks out into the West. But it was very difficult for me to understand where was my voice in those projects. Am I just doing everything that is coming my way, or are people going to recognise me for that? That was the feeling of 'lost.' All the offers were coming in and technically on paper, I should have been the happiest person but I didn’t feel satisfied. I was just doing what was coming to me. I was frustrated with the roles I was getting. For instance, I don’t want to be a primatologist in a movie who runs in high heels (referring to Rise of the Planet of The Apes). I took a break for two-and-a-half years where I didn’t work at all and that break afforded me a sense of what my voice was going to be like and what I wanted to do. Today, at 33, I feel I am the happiest. I don’t feel lost anymore. I am now extremely satisfied. I am not just acting, I get to produce films, work on documentaries. I also delve deep into social activism with people who have a sense of how to navigate that world.
With the changing times, with Netflix and Amazon coming in, what is the perception towards brown people in the West?
It is not even perception towards brown skin, it is perception towards content coming from this part of the world, and perception towards Indian filmmakers that they can make films and can tell stories about people from any part of the world. Tabrez is of Indian descent and this is his first film and it is of course about India. It may have an all-Indian cast but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t go out there and tell a story about a Japanese or an American. We, as filmmakers and story-tellers, and you, as journalists, represent humans; it doesn’t really matter what the ethnicity is. I really hope with Netflix and Amazon, of course, Indian stories become more popular but I also hope it gives Indian talent, and by that, I don’t mean just actors, I mean it gives writers, journalists and filmmakers to tell stories in different parts of the world.
What is the impact of Bollywood on international film festivals?
In terms of representation, it is slowly changing because the sensibilities of films here are changing. It is not just your masala films, it also the Masaans of the world are going for film festivals across the world. However, it will take time for Hollywood to accept that we don’t just make films with songs and dance. I have been saying this for 11 years in Hollywood that we don’t just make masala potboilers, you should watch Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi movies. This is the perception they have and as filmmakers we have to change it.
Coming back to Netflix, Sacred Games has been watched even by my white friends in Los Angeles and not just by my Indian friends. For me, it is huge that they know Mumbai. The dialogues and the way it is written…they wonder if Indians abuse so much! Lot of them felt that we followed a very conservative culture and we don’t show intimacy and sex in movies. I tell them that 1.2 billion people were not born without sex. They don’t look down upon our industry, just that they think we only make musicals. That is not an accurate representation or a judgment to pass.
Do you get the chance to see Hindi films? What have you recently watched?
Yes, I keep in touch with Hindi cinema as and when I can. I saw Badlapur halfway because my flight landed. I watched Hichki at the Melbourne Film Festival, recently. The film and Rani Mukerji were being talked about, and I was like, ‘Wow, I have to watch it’. I was happy that she used her star power to make people aware of Tourette syndrome.
What are the other projects that you are currently working on?
I shot two movies earlier this year. One is called Only with American actor Leslie Odom Jr (of Hamilton fame). It has a post-apocalyptic set-up. Four-five months later, we ended up doing another film, a science fiction called Needle in a Timestack with John Ridley (who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years A Slave), opposite Orlando Bloom. It is a love story set against the backdrop of time travel. Later this year, I also have Mowgli. It’s fantastic that I have these two indie films coming up, both of which are love stories. I’d like to do more human stories like Love Sonia once in a while. There are also a couple of projects that I’m producing.
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