GAZING BEYOND INDIA

FASHION CRITIC

A black SUV sidles up to the curb on Pioneer Boulevard and out climbs Freida Pinto in Chanel shades and a royal blue Moschino dress, with her makeup artist, the makeup artist's assistant and her publicist in tow. It's quite an entourage for sleepy Artesia, home to Southern California's Little India, where mom-and-pop restaurants mingle with sari shops and the smell of curry floats out of open doors.

But what else would you expect from Pinto, 24, the Indian beauty whose first big-screen role as Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire" has turned her into an award season sweetheart? In the last few months, the film has won nearly every award possible, and Pinto has been flying from one red carpet to another -- Dubai, to L.A., New York to London.

One place she hadn't been yet was Little India.

When she walks into Standard Sweets & Snacks, a casual South Indian snack bar, people barely look up from their lunches. Pinto may look Hollywood slick, with every shiny hair in place and her lips in a constant state of glossy perfection, but at this moment in her career, she's still able to be almost inconspicuous. With a little prompting from the store manager, though, the recognition spreads. Camera phones come out along with small scraps of paper for autographs.

"When I watched the film in Toronto for the first time, I didn't know what I was getting into," she says, sitting down to a plate of roti and chutney. "The first time I saw my face on screen I felt really nervous and self-conscious."

She needn't have worried. Pinto has gone from fashion model and TV travel show host to Hollywood star overnight and is enjoying every minute of it. "That dreams come true is the biggest surprise ever," she says, revealing that she's been collecting Freida Pinto place cards from all the glittery parties she's attended. "Every moment you blink you miss something."

Back in India, Pinto was a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl, but now designers are lining up to dress her. She's worn Christian Lacroix haute couture, Zac Posen, Oscar de la Renta and Marchesa. Today, she's paired her short floaty designer dress with shiny black lace-up Payless pumps picked up in Toronto. "Maybe they'll offer you a shoe line," I suggest. "I think they should," Pinto responds.

Acting always a dream

The daughter of a school principal and a bank manager, Pinto graduated from college with a degree in English literature. After she finished school, modeling came easy when a photographer discovered her while she was helping a friend at a hair-styling competition. She did commercials for Wrigley and De Beers, along with runway shows and magazine covers.

But what she really wanted to do was act, having devoured the work of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Aamir Khan and Shahid Kapoor.

"In India, it's hard to find a project because most of it is Bollywood, which is very exaggerated," says Pinto, who went through rounds of auditions for six months to land her role in "Slumdog." "Most of what they make is over-the-top escapist, and life isn't always so escapist. I realized what I wanted to do was connect with people, not seem unattainable or untouchable."

In front of a glass case of rose- and pistachio-flavored sweets, Pinto chats with customers about what part of India she is from (the Malad suburb of Mumbai) and the origins of her name ("Pinto is Italian, but I'm 100% Indian.") She signs waiters' order pads, admires her picture in the India Journal and deftly deals with a question about the controversial portrayal of her hometown in the film. "It's a country of 1 billion, so people are going to have opinions," she says.

Back outside, she crosses the street in front of a grocery store window piled high with sacks of basmati rice. "It smells like India," Pinto says, before walking into Cottage Art, a store full of colorful pillows, bangles and kurtas.

The owner comes running from behind the counter. "We're so proud of you!" she tells the young actress, before admitting she hasn't seen the film. Pinto is gracious, posing for photos and talking about how she'll decorate when she moves out of her parents' house. "White walls with a pop of red accessories," she says. "In India, sometimes there's too much color."

Can you imagine?

CDs, saris and swag

By the time she rounds the corner to Ziba Music, two paparazzi have appeared. "Freida, can we have a little wave?" they shout. The scene is so perfect, you'd swear Pinto's people had orchestrated it. After all, this dream sequence can only go on so long, and the red carpet will come to an end. Pinto has yet to line up another project. Her dream role would be something that might otherwise go to Kate Winslet or Meryl Streep. But with her looks and her twinkly smile, she might want to consider a romantic comedy.

We do a little CD shopping, and she lights on A.R. Rahman, who did the music for "Slumdog," and an Indian artist named Kishore Kumar. Pinto picks up a CD from an Indian reality show in which contestants compete to see who could sing most like Kumar. ("One of my favorite songs is track 6.") Then Pinto and company are back in the car headed for Sona Chaandi, the mother of all sari shops on Pioneer Boulevard, which caters to Gwen Stefani and other celeb Indo-philes. Inside, room after room is filled with saris, which run up to $995, as well as traditional Indian pants, tunic and scarf ensembles. There's also a beauty salon attached that offers threading (a kind of hair removal) and mehndi body art.

"I don't wear saris," Pinto says, scanning the colorful yardage. "I feel I'm too young."

But she's game to play dress-up, so in come saleswomen carrying saris by the armloads, shimmering with beads and embroidery. Pinto settles on a turquoise and gold brocade, which owner Mala Malani swirls around her in a flash of color, adding a yellow gold and topaz suite of jewelry. Pinto pulls the sheer fabric suggestively over her head. "Then Jamal is going to take it off," she says to gales of laughter, referring to her romantic partner in "Slumdog."

Malani offers tea and snacks, even a free sari. But Pinto leaves empty-handed. Back in the car, I ask her what she really wants -- a Chanel purse, maybe? No doubt, designers are offering her the sun and the moon.

"Something Prada . . . or a watch," she says, thinking. "No, no. I've got it -- Harry Winston!"

Yep, she's learning fast.

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booth.moore@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Exploring Little India

Little India runs along Pioneer Boulevard between 183rd and 187th streets in Artesia. Exit the 91 Freeway at Pioneer Boulevard and head south. There are numerous sari shops, snack bars and jewelers to choose from, but these are a few of our favorites:

STANDARD SWEETS & SNACKS

18600 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 809-5009. www.standardsweetsandsnacks.com.

For a light lunch, spicy snack mix and Indian desserts.

COTTAGE ART

18619 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 924-6268. www.cottageart.com.

Indian textiles, pillows, bedspreads and curtains, as well as bangle bracelets, tunic tops and colorful full skirts.

ZIBA MUSIC

11808 E. 186th St., Artesia. (562) 402-5194. www.zibamusic.com.

Bollywood DVDs and Indian music CDs, both modern and traditional.

SONA CHAANDI

18307 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 924-7274.

Huge selection of saris and tunic tops in all price ranges. Beauty services also available.

VITHA JEWELERS AND FASHIONS

18501 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 402-4641.

Highly embellished saris; real and costume jewelry.

CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE"?

The Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (310) 470-0492.

Costumes from the film, including the amazing saffron-hued scarf Freida Pinto wears in the train station scene, are on display in the lobby of the theater.

-- Booth Moore

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