BY ANUJ RADIA

Breaking through the stereotypical image of an Indian woman in foreign films, Freida Pinto is India’s first Hollywood star and this label makes her an icon in every way.

Post undertaking the role of Latika in the award-winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, we have seen the actress shine in several American and British productions including ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Trishna’ and ‘Dearest Dancer’.

What also makes Freida a formidable and admirable individual, is her passion for philanthropy and the fact that she is incredibly vocal about women empowerment.

As a result, by launching the non-profit organisation called “We Do It Together” (which provides finance for feature films, documentaries and television shows which focus on women’s empowerment), proves how Freida has taken yet another step regarding the development of women.

Perhaps her fervour for the subject of female empowerment is a reason why Freida Pinto chose to get involved with Tabrez Noorani’s ‘Love Sonia’, a film which exhibits how the lives of young Indian Village girls after being victims of human trafficking into the vicious global sex trade network.

In an exclusive with our entertainment reporter, Freida opens up on her role in ‘Love Sonia’, acting and what woman power really means to her.

Freida, Love Sonia is having its world premiere at the opening gala at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival 2018. You must be thrilled about this?

Yes, I’m absolutely thrilled. Love Sonia has been a labour of love for over 10 years and it’s finally getting its world premiere in London.

This will be an international release for the film, in such a multicultural city, and will be attended by audiences from every walk of life.

Tell us more about your character and role?       

I play Rashmi whom you see shortly after the first act of the film after Sonia has been forced and drugged against her will into a brothel in Bombay.

Rashmi is an unpredictable character which you never know what she is going to do next. I like, in many ways that I got to play this character because I was so tired of playing the same sunshine roles in films that I have done in the past.

Playing Rashmi gave me a chance to come out of the box, into this crazy side that I believe we all have. As I was working with Tabrez Noorani on this film I had some interactions with real life Rashmi’s.

That was interesting because at the end of the day what they want is no different than what you and I want – they just want to be accepted, loved, and cared for.

Even in a messed up world like a brothel, it is survival of the fittest. My character is a survivor and she does what needs to be done to survive.

Does your character interact with the character of Demi Moore at all in the film?

No, she does not.

You will be sharing screen-space with exceptional various Bollywood actors like Anupam Kher, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chaddha, Adil Hussain and Rajkummar Rao, to name a few. How enriching was this experience?

I mainly interacted with Richa Chaddha, Rajkummar Rao, and Manoj Bajpayee. I absolutely enjoyed interacting and playing with these characters.

I had a scene with Rajkummar Rao that did not make the final cut, but I’m so glad I got to play that out with him.

These are all actors I supremely respect not just because they’re talented but because they’re actors in India who really stuck to their guns and never gave up on to their dream.

Rajkummar Rao and I were friends before this film came around and it was nice to finally work with him. Manoj is a spectacular actor who I really look up to. I am really inspired by these actors.

Apparently, there are 800,000 victims of sexual trafficking each year and 50% of them are estimated to be children. Through Love Sonia and being a renowned public figure who often promotes humanitarian causes, how do you hope to use your celebrity status to tackle heinous crimes like human trafficking?

My dream for this film is to reach far and wide, to all ages, genders, and races. I would also love to see Love Sonia reach that group of people who can actually help us do something about the laws protecting humans that are vulnerable to trafficking.

So much of this change can only happen if people in the legal world and people with political influence make this crisis a priority. But those without political influence can also do something about it.

Revolutions can be ignited and kept alive on social media these days. Everyone can help keep a heightened level of awareness that’s generated through technology.

A Facebook post or a heartfelt tweet, if someone is truly inspired, can add some value to the collective voice. But ultimately it’s going to take more than 140 characters to effect legal change and for governments where trafficking is rife to start viewing this as a grave crime against humanity.

You are also vocal about women empowerment. What does woman power mean to you?

Female empowerment is simply the right to choose for yourself without judgment; without judgement towards oneself or judgement towards other women.

For me, it think it’s about embracing who you are, embracing your strengths including your vulnerabilities.

I am not a proponent of the myth that just because we are coming into an age of overt female empowerment, a woman should never show their weakness.

Or that women should never let their emotions get in their way. Emotions are beautiful. To be able to own your emotions, to be able to accept them, and accept other’s emotions, for me is a strength, not a weakness.

According to a recent interview with a leading daily, you stated: “[I refused to play characters that were seen as] a piece of meat or a cardboard cut-out.” What type of roles stand out for you and why?

Women are not one-dimensional. Women have strengths and weaknesses. Women can be light and dark, not in terms of skin colour but in terms of personality. I also am drawn to characters that don’t indulge in the conventional perception of “what is right”.

A woman doesn’t lose her femininity just because she needs to step into a man’s world to make unconventional choices. I love women that realize the consequences of their decisions and actions and own those as well. I love female characters that make decisions and own them.

How do you feel that these character choices help to evoke a change within society – especially regarding the stereotypical perception of an Indian woman?

I think the stereotypical perception of Indian women has already changed. From the start of my career, I never felt like I had to play a stereotypical “Indian” woman.

I did play some general stereotypical female roles in the early days of my career, but that’s something neither white nor are black actresses immune to. Especially at a time when boundaries were still being broken 11 years ago. It’s also about how you navigate those stereotypes.

I may be offered a stereotypical role but I ask myself if I can I make it my own? Can I make it different and still memorable? Can I talk with the director about making changes to things I don’t agree with?  I also think that art imitates life.

The studios and studio heads that made the decisions back then commissioned and okayed such characters to exist in their scripts because that’s all that they had tried before and somehow that formula worked for many years.

Objectification of women in cinema is certainly not a recent phenomenon. But it’s simple for me. Even if a script like that comes my way, my job is just to say NO, thank you very much but no.

Finally, you are an inspiration and role-model to many. What advice would you give to all the budding actors out there?

I don’t like the idea of giving advice as much as I prefer leading by example or by simply sharing my own story. And if someone gets inspired along the way then that does make me very happy.

I remember everyone around me being so enamoured by the success of Slumdog Millionaire that many were quick to pin it on luck.

But luck only lasts for so long and in the end its hard work and persistence that pays off, in addition to the prerequisite of having some talent. And even then life and certainly this career has been all about peaks and valleys.

I had to learn very early in my career to let go of both successes as well as failures to maintain my sanity. Negative self-judgement is possibly more dangerous than other people’s opinions about you.

And once you arrive at a place where you can be at peace — secure with who you are and the choices you make — then all the other insecurities can be tamed more easily. It really doesn’t matter what other people think of you or say as long as you’re owning whatever it is you choose to do.

We also believe that hard work and persistence pays off. As such, this sentiment is palpable in Freida Pinto’s success as an actor and social activist. Keep rising and shining Freida!

Love Sonia opens tomorrow at the London Indian Film Festival 2018. For more information, visit the website here

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