Freida Pinto Isn't A Reluctant Feminist

Photo: Nina Westervelt.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman more passionate than Freida Pinto. For every question you ask her, she has a meaningful answer filled with fervor, as if she's been thinking about that very subject for days. It's this passion that's made her stand out as an actress and an activist. Nowhere are those two aspects of her life played out more powerfully than in her new role in Desert Dancer

Desert Dancer is the true story of Afshin Ghaffarian, who left Iran in 2009 after facing oppression for wanting to dance. Pinto plays Elaheh, a member of the clandestine dancing group that Ghaffarian forms. Her character is a refreshing one. In an inspiring story that could have easily been milked for a romantic plot, Elaheh's story is about her struggle with drug addiction. It's the complexity of this role that drew Pinto to it in the first place, because, as she explains, women have a complicated relationship with Holllywood.
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What drew you to the role of Elaheh in Desert Dancer?
“It was such a wonderfully complex character, which I’m most drawn towards. I love stories of women who feel like real women, who aren’t one-dimensional, who have their demons to deal with, like we all do. As working women, we put on a strong, brave front and go wherever it is that we have to go.

"There are women like Elaheh who wear their beauty and ugliness and are unapologetic about it. It’s not necessarily the best thing. I’m not saying her drug addiction is beautiful. But, it’s part of her personality and this character. The fact that she has the dual beauty/ugly thing really drew me to her. It’s really intriguing, isn’t it? You have to love the darkness in people — especially if you’re going to play them.”

How would you compare this to your role in Slumdog Millionaire?
“Completely different. That one was sunshine, beauty, love. This was very grown up.”

You’ve been really involved in political and social movements, like your work with Girls Rising. When did that interest start for you?
“From the very beginning, even before Slumdog Millionaire. It’s something my family always made mandatory as part of our responsibility to society. It’s not something we felt like 'Ugh, man we have to give an hour to a church' or whatever it was. It never felt like a burden. It always felt like the fun thing to do.

"Hence, there’s a word I hate, which is ‘charity,’ because when you use it there’s a burden associated with it, whereas when you say this is an opportunity to be responsible, empower, and uplift — it’s so much better than saying ‘charity.’ Then you’re not just looking down on the person in front of you, you’re just saying you just have a different story than mine, but you deserve to have the same story as mine.”

Have you had a chance to work with any other Indian actresses, like Mindy Kaling?
“I’ve had a chance to meet her, but not to work with her. I’d love to play Mindy’s sister Cindy!” 

What can you tell us about your upcoming role in Knight of Cups?
“I don’t know much about the film. I’m nervous, but love the idea of the unknown. Many times in my own life I struggle with, ‘Why can’t I have clarity right now? Why can’t I have this answer right now?’ The dots are always connected in reverse — never looking forward. You can never [follow them]. Life is unpredictable. You go through the various journeys in life, making mistakes and achievements, meeting new people, then you connect the dots in reverse and go, ‘Oh my God. That’s beautiful.’ That’s the mystery of life. In many ways working with Terrence Malick was like connecting the dots in reverse. I’m afraid to see where it connects to.”

He’s notoriously a very private person. Have you two interacted much?
“Yes, I love him. He and I had so many chats about ideas of spirituality and religion, life, and nature. It’s wonderful talking to a person about that. Also, validation. It’s nice coming from a man who’s seen it all.”
Photo: Nina Westervelt.

Is it difficult for non-white actresses to get meaningful roles in Hollywood?
“No, I just think it’s difficult for women to get meaningful roles in Hollywood. It’s not impossible. Look at Cate Blanchett’s work on Blue Jasmine. She proved women of all ages are also watched in cinema. Having said that, we’d like for it to be more of an egalitarian film industry for men and women, and it clearly isn’t yet. Sometimes it’s counterproductive to only talk about the negative, because then we fail to see the positive.

"I would say that yes, it’s probably a lot more difficult for ethnic minorities because they’re a new development, in a way. Definitely for Indian actors. African-American actors have been around longer, and even women of that ethnicity suffer quite a lot in terms of not getting the kind of roles they like to play. But I wouldn’t say that it’s easier for white actresses. It definitely isn’t. They’ve struggled as well. Maybe the barriers are fewer to cross, but they’re there.”

Why do you think some female celebrities are reluctant to identify with feminism?
“Because feminism itself is a very misconstrued term. It alludes to a one-up situation, when it’s not. Really, what it talks about is equal rights for men and women, that women should be enjoying the same rights and economic benefits as men. The misunderstanding of the term has a major part to play in that. Also, there are women who endorse the wrong meaning of feminism. It does become a very tricky. Who are some actresses that feel that way?”

Off the top of my head, Shailene Woodley.
“I think Shailene [Woodley] is an immensely intelligent girl. I love listening to her interviews. She’s a phenomenal actress. I thought she was wonderful in The Fault In Our Stars. Sometimes, I think it’s the way 'female' is attached to the word 'feminist.' It does allude to something that can be isolating at times.

"Maybe if great minds come together we can come up with a term that feels acceptable and is understood by men and women equally, where there is no baggage or misconstruing of what’s been associated with this term. I know that it’s sad that a new word would have to be invented, but you know what? There has to be some kind of an effort on both ends to help people to understand the meaning of the word ‘feminism’ better. If it’s a problem with the word itself, then we should talk about it.”

That’s an interesting thought. And it wouldn’t be the first time an identity has taken on a new word for itself.
“Circumstances are different now than when the term was first coined. It was originally talking about women’s right to vote. There was no social media or Internet back then. We have to look at it as impartially as we can. I don't know what the solution is. That’s just my opinion.”

Desert Dancer is in theaters now.


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