It's midday and Freida Pinto seems comfortable sitting backstage at Toronto's Ryerson University Theater building. Her comfort has little to do with her recent cinematic success, and more to do with the fact that she's back in the city that launched her career three years ago. Pinto is in town for the screening of Trishna at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
She's been a regular to TIFF since 2008, when she arrived in Toronto with the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire. She returned in 2009 and 2010, for Miral and Woody Allen's You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Here she was again. Her latest feature is being screened at the theatre as we speak- the dialogue and music from Trishna provide an ambient backdrop for the conversation.
This is probably the most difficult role the 26-year-old actor has encountered yet and her first film where she has had to shoot for several graphic and brutal sex scenes.
Trishna is British director Michael Winterbottom's reimagining of author Thomas Hardy's classic tragedy Tess of the D'Urbervilles in an Indian context, with its class conflicts and urban-rural clash. And that's reflected through the lens of a heroine, who is probably the most tragic in all English literature. Film versions of Tess have been attempted before, most recently in 1979 by director Roman Polanski, featuring Nastassja Kinski in the lead.
Working from source material drawn from Hardy's dense novel hasn't fazed Pinto. She has the advantage of having read Tess earlier. "I had already read Tess in 2004-2005 when I was studying English literature, and was familiar with Thomas Hardy's novel as it was part of the syllabus." That, of course, was during her undergrad days at St Xavier's College in Mumbai.
Regardless, there's a chasm between studying a book in college and studying it to enact its principal character, as Pinto said, "I guess reading it for the second time made a bigger difference since I knew it was going to be an adaptation into an Indian setting."
That setting is largely rural Rajasthan, epicentred in Ossian, with forays into Jaipur and Mumbai. Taking Tess from England's Wessex to the aridity of Rajasthan is quite a leap, but as with most classics, its underlying core remains timeless. As Pinto said, "Adaptation was quite easy. I didn't feel a major disconnect between 19th century England and 21st century India. It felt like there was a lot in common."
Like impoverishment and exploitation, of women particularly. That's where the sex comes in, though not in a lurid manner, but reflecting a man's maniacal urges. To Winterbottom's credit he never veers off into poverty porn territory. The reality of India is displayed factually, without embellishment or cameras lingering over filth and desperation. For Pinto diving into the world was a rush: "Once you start filming and realise how daunting it can be to do something like that, and at the same time, give it your all, it almost becomes an addiction."
It was a homecoming of sorts for her. Still based in Mumbai, she hasn't acted in a film located in India since Slumdog. She relished the opportunity: "I feel there's something about India, in terms of filming over there and just working with the people over there, it just changes you for good, even if you're Indian and go back with a project."
You also get to play tourist, somewhat. While your average Rajasthan itinerary would traverse Jaipur, Udaipur, perhaps Jaisalmer, this film allowed her to linger in the hinterland, places like Ossian and Nagaur. As she said, "These places truly describe Rajasthan in all its grandeur, with the kind of rural population we showed in the film."
Part of playing Trishna was learning the setting. Pinto studied the local dialect, the enunciation of Hindi and visited the villages to immerse herself into the lives of the girls there: "What I did in order to find my Tess was obviously not base it on the Tess from Hardy's novel only but also learn more about the stories of the girls in Rajasthan."
So, she visited families and schools and was startled to find an English medium school in this backwater, which forms, partly, the setting for the climax of the movie.
Of course, Winterbottom's rigorous work ethic also ensured his actors never quite stepped out of character, as Pinto said, "He has a way of working which is nine hours of guerrilla filming, with very few breaks, but the camera's always rolling."
Trishna is a small film. It found a North American distributor during the festival, being picked up by Sundance Selects. And while it had a red carpet premiere at TIFF, where Pinto appeared with her beau and fellow Slumdog alumnus Dev Patel, it's unlikely to blaze through the box office, unlike her recent release Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That production, starring James Franco and Pinto as the primatologist Caroline, raked in nearly $375 million worldwide. It hasn't quite impacted Pinto's career yet since it's so recent, but as Pinto said, "It's also nice having that blend of blockbuster film."
She has a couple of other releases lined up this year. First, there's Tarsem Singh's Immortals, a fantasy rooted in Greek mythology, in which Pinto plays Phaedra. Later in the year, there's Black Gold, set in the Middle East in the 1930s, in which she plays an Arab princess.
See the connection? Pinto refuses to be typecast in "Indian" roles. As she explained, "Once you fall into that rut of playing the same kind of character, of that same ethnicity over and over again, you keep getting offers like that."
Well, the eclectic nature of the roles Pinto's been featured in since her film career launched in 2008 with Slumdog does mean that you never quite know what to expect from her next.