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Freida Pinto's latest role in the epic Black Gold, in which she portrays an Arabic woman, was a tough one for the actress. “For me it was very difficult. There were times when [director] Jean-Jacques would ask me to tone it down," she told us.
Then there was the issue of acting in a burka with her face and body veiled, or trying to film in Qatar’s August sun, and, far more dangerously, filming in Tunisia during the recent real-life revolution in which dictatorial President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was defeated.
But then Frieda’s a lot tougher than her tiny delicate frame would have you believe as we discovered when we interviewed Freida ahead of the UAE premiere of her new film Black Gold...
Freida Pinto’s life changed when she landed the role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire playing the beggar-turned-ganster’s moll who falls for a boy from Mumbai’s slums. That boy was played by Dev Patel, almost six years her junior, a gangly 18-year-old who had already gained a little fame in the UK teen TV series Skins.
Just 23 at the time, Freida was working as a model for the prestigious Elite agency and was already married to Mumbai-based exec Rohan Antoa (though she kept that fact under wraps). Not content with her glamorous job, she decided to push herself into acting and underwent six month’s of gruelling casting auditions before hitting the jackpot with Slumdog Millionaire. During filming, as is often the case in showbiz, life imitated art and Freida fell for Dev, though far from being a boy from the slums, Patel was being hailed as the next big thing.
Amid controversy that Freida had unceremoniously ditched her hubby by simply not returning his calls, Frieda and Dev were coy about their relationship. However, when quizzed about Dev’s technique in their famous Slumdog kiss scene in a Mumbai train station, a very flustered Freida admitted that, “yes, he was good, really good”.
As it turns out Freida, now 27, has enjoyed more success than Patel, and there has been some speculation that their relationship is suffering, possibly as a consequence. Coming hot on the heels of 2010’s Miral in which she played a Palestinian girl, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Freida’s seventh film, Black Gold, is set to be huge in the Middle East. The royal drama set in 1930s Arabia sees her play Princess Lallah, daughter of ambitious Emir Nassib (Antonio Banderas) and wife to a forward-thinking Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim).
Freida on the Burka
In most scenes Freida wears traditional Arabic clothing, and while being largely concealed in a burka was a challenge to her acting, the attire did have benefits.
“Automatically you get transformed into your characters – for me it was a sense of royalty that came with it, almost immediately as soon as I wore it,” says Freida on her burkas, many of which were vintage. “There’s also a certain royalty that comes with vintage costumes, and we had a play date for almost two days straight with all these amazing vintage costumes.”
On the wedding night of the Prince Auda and Princess Lallah, what’s beneath the burka is revealed: Behind the veil, Lallah is dressed as a Bedouin tribeswoman and looks more like a Russ Meyer heroine than a conservative Arabian, and later in the film, reflecting the changing times, Lallah wears Western attire.
“Jean-Jacques was very mindful to dress Lallah up as the traditional princess but to present a certain desire to just break out and be modern, and the only time she actually shows it is to Tahar’s character and in a little blue dress that she wore, which came in later from Europe. So, it’s a blend of both – keeping the tradition and having something modern... at the same time not losing who she is, the princess that she is. It feels great to play characters like this – you rarely get to play so when you get the opportunity you go all out.”
Becoming an Arabic Woman
What drew Freida to the role was the male-centric world in which Lallah’s life evolves. In portraying an Arabic woman, Mumbai-born Freida also had to navigate many cultural differences and sensitivities, and do justice to the forward-thinking Arabic women she is representing.
“We have to keep in mind that the film was set in a certain time period - it was the 1930s and the 1940s. One should not forget that Princess Lallah has the desire to be free, but has such tradition. In the very first scene, when she’s just becoming a teenager, coming into her own, one of the women from the women’s quarters says to her, ‘You’re too old to play with boys now, you need to go to the women’s quarters and be with other women’. From then on she’s reigned in. Her kind of freedom is curbed and she's brought up in a certain kind of way, but she's always trying to delicately break through that by respecting her father, not really going all out and rebelling.”
Ethiopian Estee Lauder model Liya Kebede plays an opposing role in Black Gold as Aicha, the wild Bedouin woman who lives off the land and makes her own rules, presenting a stark contrast to the supposedly privileged princess locked in her fortress.
“Aicha is an absolute rebel,” explains Freida. “She’s rebelling against the way women are kept in society back in the time - she stands for freedom. Not to say that Princess Lallah’s character can not ultimately bring the freedom that women need in society, in the Arab society back in the day.
“If there was a Black Gold Part two I totally think Princess Lallah would be different because the rule changes, the way traditions are in the the Arab world changes when Prince Alba comes into power. But that is what she’s always wanted. When she looks at the sharabi [fortress] – she wishes it never existed, she wishes she could see the world unveiled and ride like other Bedouin women, ride like Aicha rides the horse. So in a way, the holding back, the delicacy, the softness that you sense, really comes into place keeping in mind this is a specific time period that we're talking about.”
Freida often references the time period of the film, seemingly unaware that for many women in Arabic society little progress has been made in terms of equality since the 1950s. Or perhaps that press team didn’t want such comparisons drawn. This is, after all, a feel-good Hollywood movie with a happy ending, not a political tour de force.
The Future for Freida...
While Patel was picked for his role in Slumdog because he looked like he’d never been near a free weight in his life, Freida’s Black Gold co-stars are all pin-up material. She describes Antonia Banderas as being “lion-like”, while French-Algerian Tahar Rahim, with who she also shares an intense kissing scene, is a heartthrob in his native France where he is now being touted as the next big thing.
Showbiz is a fickle world, and as we watched Dev Patel walk his girlfriend down the red carpet for the world premiere of Black Gold at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival this week, we couldn’t help but wonder if the rumours were founded. Though hand-in-hand and all smiles at first, Dev began to look distracted and impatient as Freida’s fans clamoured for her attention leaving Dev somewhat at a loss.
Then, before the film had even started we saw the couple exit Freida’s own premiere via a back exit and make a swift departure into the night. Whatever the future holds, it looks like ambitious Freida’s already moved on to the next project...
Caught on Camera: Freida and Dev's Sharp Exit
INFO: Black Gold is at UAE cinemas from Thursday 1 December, 2011.