A PASSAGE TO INDIA
TV PRESENTER AND FORMER MODEL FREIDA PINTO WANTS NOTHING MORE THAN TO BE A MOVIE ACTRESS. A ROLE IN DANNY BOYLE’S SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE IS A GOOD WAY TO START.
Not to give it away, but at the end of director Danny Boyle’s latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, the entire cast bursts into song. They dance, too, flamboyantly and unselfconsciously and with much twirling of brightly colored scarves. It’s an unfamiliar sight in a Western film, but a common one in Bollywood cinema (where, actually, there’s usually a lot more of it).
“In a way, that ending is like an ode to Bollywood,” says actress Freida Pinto, who plays Latika in the film—a character whom the hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, in a breakout performance), spends most of his time trying to find. “The film industry in India is loud, and escapist, and huge— you can get lost in it. People there see the poverty everyday, they don’t want to go to the theater and see some more of it. But there are real people around you, and real stories that need to be addressed. And that’s what Danny has done with this film.” Set in Mumbai (which is the current name for Bombay; many residents still call it that), Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, a boy from the ghetto, who finds himself as a contestant on the Indian incarnation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As the questions keep coming, Jamal realizes that he has encountered the answers during his difficult life. The story of his childhood is subsequently told through flashbacks and, as he gets ever closer to the grand prize, he comes to capture the imagination of an entire nation.
It might not sound like anything special on paper, but the film is a triumph—a sweeping tribute to a country that doesn’t shy from its less appealing aspects. “Danny just loved the slums and the train stations, and those are places you avoid because it’s so crowded,” says Pinto. “They’re gross and hot, and sticky. But I think he loved them more than his hotel room.”
“I wanted it to feel like you were seeing it from the character’s perspective, not mine,” says Boyle. “I didn’t want to be an observer of it, I wanted to be immersed in it, and experience it. I didn’t try to control Mumbai; you can’t. You’ve just got to go with it and have faith in it. And that’s kind of what I felt about Freida. She was inexperienced, but I had this instinct about her. From the first time I saw her audition tape I had this reaction—and I remember it happening when I was making Trainspotting with Kelly MacDonald—I just remember thinking, ‘I bet that’s her.’”
It couldn’t be a better start to a film career for Pinto, who was born in Mumbai and prior to Slumdog, had modeled and hosted a travel show. “I kind of cried when I watched it for the first time,” she says, relaxing into a leather couch in a Manhattan photo studio (in three hours she would be on a plane back to India). “I knew it was so stupid crying watching myself, but I was just really happy that this happened to me, in my first film. It’s kind of like a dream. It’s not sinking in yet.”
Staying true to the country he was filming in was so important to Boyle that he even cast children from the streets to play the young Latika and Jamal. “We’ve set it up so they can be put through school now,” he says. “And if they complete their schooling, at 16, then quite a considerable amount of money will be released to them. It’s great to give something back, because we got so much from them.”
“In India we grow up around this poverty,” says Pinto, “and you can get desensitized to it, to the point where it doesn’t melt you anymore—it doesn’t break your heart. But this film is extraordinary. It goes deep inside and touches your heart; if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be Danny’s film.”