Cover Story: Fantastic Miss Freida

Here's why the bold beauty on our sixth anniversary cover is India's hottest export.
 
"What is the estimated time of arrival for the cats?" the production manager asks anxiously into her cell phone.
 
Two hawks and a horse are already in the studio. The clothes racks are weighed down by all manner of dark ensembles -- a Roberto Cavalli dress, a Chanel jacket, a Gareth Pugh coat, amongst others. Amidst the neighing and the screeching, and a good 15 minutes ahead of her call time, arrives Freida Pinto.
 
You wouldn't guess she's flown into Mumbai from Los Angeles earlier that morning if you heard her. Photographer Bharat Sikka wants her to get on the horse? She can do it. Her nails need to be painted black? She knows just the right matte shade; a baffled nail artist is told the name and number.
 
Four and a half years ago, Vogue put on its cover a 24-year-old Pinto, freshly-minted from the success of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. She was a shiny debutante overwhelmed by the paparazzi stalking her every move; awed by things like "getting handbags from Tod's, Bulgari and Dior -- all in one day."
 
But Pinto is an ingénue no more. Her public appearances no longer involve dancing to 'Jai ho' on TV, which she did good-naturedly for the better part of 2009. "After one year of doing [it] on every live television show, you go 'Screw you! I'm not doing it one more time'," she laughs.
 
She has appeared in six movies since her debut, and another two are in post-production. During this time, she has worked with an all-star roster of directors, travelled to Sierra Leone and Ethiopia as global ambassador for Plan's 'Because I am a Girl' campaign, had an audience with the UN secretary general, filmed under trying circumstances at the West Bank, made it to the front rows of New York, Paris and London fashion weeks and kissed Superman (Henry Cavill to mortals).
 
So much has changed. And Pinto's managers want to draw focus to that. Her publicist in India is aggressively against me interviewing anyone related to Slumdog, including Pinto's boyfriend Dev Patel, whom she started dating while filming the movie. Because "Freida's consciously moved forward from Slumdog."
 
A week later, I'm having lunch with Pinto at a Mediterranean bistro in Bandra -- a place she's picked on the suggestion of her TV producer sister, Sharon. She orders rice-crusted fish kebabs, confessing a debilitating weakness for all kinds of seafood owing to her Mangalorean Catholic roots.
 
"There's a lavish banquet laid out for me at home every time I come to Mumbai… and it always involves jackfruit, fish curry and rice." On her part, Pinto betrays no desire to smooth over her past. She's worked with Woody Allen and has just wrapped up filming for Knight Of Cups with Terrence Malick, but the director who has made the biggest impression on her will always be Danny Boyle. "He gave me the beginning of what I have now," she says earnestly. "You've got to feel so proud of being part of a film that altered the Goodness Gracious Me concept of India that people had. People don't like me saying this, but Slumdog did open a lot of doors."
 
Pinto's biggest success has been to avoid the stereotype of the "token Indian girl" and bag roles beyond her ethnicity in Hollywood, never mind that Tarsem Singh fondly calls her his 'Brown Pakora'.
 
In Julian Schnabel's Miral (2010), she plays a young Palestinian woman entangled in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. In Immortals (2011), Singh's extravagant visual orgy, she plays the virgin oracle Phaedra of Greek mythology. In Desert Dancer, which is set to release in 2014, she is an Iranian dancer. Pinto has played the racial ambiguity card well. "My agent laughs about it. She says 'Freida's chasing all the White Girl roles'." 
 
Her style has been as varied as her roles. She showed up wearing a Gucci suit at the Chime For Change concert earlier this year in London. And while there may have been some debate over her choice of a Chanel Haute Couture gown with a tie for the 2011 Met Gala, who can forget that Louis Vuitton white-collared playsuit that fired up the blogs?
 
The one thing that makes her hopping mad -- really, she even forsakes the beloved fish kebabs for a few minutes -- is being asked why she doesn't wear the sari on the red carpet. "I am Indian; I don't need to wear a sari to promote Indianness. A sari is not more Indian than my soul. I have no patience for people who are narrowminded… just be a global citizen and be proud of where you come from."
 
Excerpted from the cover story of the October 2013 issue of Vogue India. Subscribe to the print edition or get a digital copy.
 
- Anindita Ghose