In the three years since playing the imprisoned lover Latika in the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” Freida Pinto has appeared in only one film, as part of the ensemble cast in Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” But though you might not know it from your local marquee, she’s been busy. Come November she’ll be hard to miss, appearing in two of the season’s biggest productions, released within two weeks of each other: the Greek gods saga “Immortals” and the “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes.” And it is in “Miral,” which opened this weekend, that she takes on the largest, most complicated role of her brief career, as a young Palestinian woman sent to study at a school for orphans.
“If I’d been asked a few years ago, ‘Did you ever think something like this would happen to you?’ I would have said, ‘Maybe over 14 or 15 years,’” she said at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival of her sudden spurt of high-profile films. “I’m aiming high, but not that high.”
Directed by Julian Schnabel and drawn from a semi-autobiographical novel by journalist Rula Jebreal, who also wrote the script, “Miral” aims high as well. The film spans nearly half a century and follows several protagonists, beginning with the stately Hind Hosseini (Hiam Abbass), who converts her grandfather’s Jerusalem mansion into an orphanage to house the children of Deir Yassin, where more than 100 Arabs were killed by Jewish militia forces in 1948. (Many Arabs consider it a massacre although, as with many events in the region, the nature of the conflict and the death toll are hotly debated.)
Cut to the 1980s, when the story shifts to Miral (played by Pinto and inspired by Jebreal), a rebellious, headstrong teenager who ignores warnings to avoid the political unrest that will soon explode into the first intifada. At first, her politics are mainly an outgrowth of adolescent anger, but as Miral (and the audience) bears witness to excesses on both sides, she becomes an articulate voice for change. (The film, which had its U.S. premiere at the United Nations this month, has sparked controversy within Jewish organizations, some of whom find the negative portrayals of Israelis offensive.)
Given that Schnabel has been known to do interviews in his pajamas, it’s not surprising that Pinto calls him the most relaxed director she’s ever worked with (especially since one of the others is Woody Allen). She recalls a simple shot of Miral walking back from the principal’s office after being disciplined. “We were walking, just doing the scene, and he kept saying, ‘No! It’s not working,’” she recalls. “Then he yelled ‘Cut,’ and we started doing our own thing, and he said, ‘Just roll the camera now.’ I wasn’t being Miral, just Freida, but that’s how he does it.”
Considering that “Miral” endorses Hind’s preoccupation with the establishment of a discrete Palestinian identity, it might seem strange that the title character is played by a woman born in Mumbai. Strange, that is, until you place pictures of Pinto and Jebreal side by side and note the uncanny resemblance; the final shot seamlessly substitutes the author in place of Pinto, a shift so subtle that many fail to notice the switch. Pinto’s similarity to Jebreal wasn’t the only leg up she had in landing the part. How about having your audition tape shot by a soon-to-be Oscar-winning director? When promotional duties for “Slumdog Millionaire” prevented her from meeting with a casting agent, Danny Boyle offered to shoot her audition.
Although she doesn’t share Miral’s background, Pinto found her own way of relating to the character’s situation. “Even though I was born into a democratic nation, through history books and through my grandparents I have heard about suffering between India and Pakistan,” she says. “Two people belonging to the same land were unnecessarily divided, and there was a lot of suffering and a lack of acceptance on both sides. So I could relate to the whole Israeli-Palestinian thing because of that, and I think it’s really sad.”
In all, Pinto spent 31/2 months in the Palestinian territories, including six weeks before production began visiting refugee camps where non-Arabs seldom venture, including one in Ramallah where the children trot up to strangers with stones in their hands to welcome unwanted visitors. “They were not very sure what I was doing there, and they were not very accepting,” Pinto recalls. But as soon as she spoke a few words of Arabic to them, she says, “They said, ‘OK, she’s warm,’ and the stones went down.”
Not surprisingly, Pinto is impatient that her nationality should define the roles she plays or where she works. “I don’t want to play Queen Elizabeth,” she says. “That would be ridiculous. But I find it funny when people say, ‘She’s Indian — why did she play a Palestinian?’ When people ask me, ‘Why don’t you do films back in India?’ I say that cinema is so global and the world is so small, and everybody is somehow connected to everyone. Why can’t I just be part of the global cinema?”
The actors she admires are those who can leave their roles on the set, no matter how intense. She recalls watching Mickey Rourke on the set of “Immortals”: “The scene I saw, he really put himself into a dark place, and he did it by grunting and using his body. It was very physical. And then the moment it was, ‘Cut,’ he’s Mickey again, laughing and telling jokes.”
With “Immortals” and “Rise of the Apes,” Pinto will surely get her wish to go global — if “Slumdog” didn’t do the job already. And she hopes to play more characters who are less like her. Sometimes there are similarities,” between you and the character, she says, “and sometimes there aren’t, and when there aren’t, I think you actually have more freedom. When there are, your reactions are a bit biased; you lose that flexibility and versatility, in a way. When you have nothing, you have so much more to play with.”