Freida Pinto: All she is saying is give peace a chance

The star tells Gill Pringle why critics are wrong to sneer at an Indian actress being cast in the role of an Arab girl in Miral

Less than two years ago, Freida Pinto was the darling of the awards circuit, her debut film role in Slumdog Millionaire propelling the shy Indian beauty to the podium of every film academy ceremony around the world.

If audiences embraced the underdog film, then they positively fell in love with Pinto transforming her into a real-life Cinderella, not least because of her own real-life romance with Slumdog co-star Dev Patel.

It was a Pretty Woman-style breakthrough that most actresses can only dream of and it would have been easy to simply milk the opportunity dry, attending the opening of every envelope in town.

Instead, Pinto chose to do something far more courageous. Today an unofficial global ambassador for ethnic diversity and tolerance in film, she has since broken Bollywood's glass ceiling – despite never having made a single Bollywood film in her brief career; Slumdog having more to do with the vision of its British director Danny Boyle than actually being a product of the traditional Bollywood factory.

Even stranger, she's apparently not only doing it for her fellow countrywomen but for ethnic actresses across the world, recently coming under fire for playing a Palestinian woman in her latest film, Miral, prompting its director Julian Schnabel to fiercely defend his choice.

"This whole fuss about my playing Miral is ridiculous and been blown so out of proportion," retorted a defiant Pinto talking to The Independent at the second annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar a few weeks ago where Miral was screened to much acclaim among Arab audiences despite drawing lukewarm reviews when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September together with collective criticism over casting an Indian actress in the role of an Arab girl. Reflecting similar sentiments from other reviewers, Variety critic Justin Chang commented: "Bound to raise perhaps the most criticism is the casting of Pinto, the Indian actress-model who came to fame in Slumdog Millionaire, in the role of an Arab Everygirl –an odd choice for a drama predicated on specifics of cultural identity. . ."

Pinto's jaw visibly clenches as she prepares to defend herself, saying through gritted teeth: "I was so proud that Julian had the confidence in me to pull this off." Cast in the title role of Schnabel's adaptation of journalist Rula Jebreal's book Miral, chronicling her real life experience of growing up in an orphanage for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem during the 1980s, Pinto says she knew from the start that she was taking on far more than a regular acting gig.

"We all knew it was not going to be easy. We all knew it was going to be difficult but to not do something because you live in fear, that's wrong, and that's what is happening; people are constantly living in fear. So critics can say what they want but I strongly believe that I am actually breaking down cultural barriers. I find it very interesting these days that films are bringing in so many people of different ethnicities and I'm proud to be a part of that cultural shift," she says, artfully guiding the conversation towards the gentler subject of the gradual demystification of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed actress as movie idol.

"Yes, those other actresses have their own appeal and they bring whatever they bring to a film while I bring something that I do not particularly feel has been explored much in Hollywood.

"I feel really happy that I have broken that stereotype that 'it is not possible'. Because I personally think that anything is possible. I feel the timing is right as well. The world is getting much smaller and that's the best way to embrace it. America is so multi-cultural and if you go there – it's not just Americans there. There's everybody there. I see so many Indians when I go to New York and a big Chinese community. I really don't understand what it is about people believing that if you live in India – there's only Indians there. Ethnicity aside, we're all humans. That's what I believe," insists the equal-ethnic-opportunity actress who spent three months last spring in Montreal playing a Greek goddess in Tarsem Singh's Immortals opposite Mickey Rourke, due for release next year.

"It was interesting to be in a film where the men were objectified and the women could just enjoy themselves," she quips. "I was excited about doing a project where I was covered up while the men were all wearing short skirts. It was a bit of an eye-candy situation but I'm talking more about the men than the women!

"After that, I'm actually going to be involved in another Arab film, Black Gold, by French film-maker Jean-Jacques Annaud, playing an Arabian princess. And how much knowledge do I have of that culture? But it doesn't stop me from getting involved. I feel unfortunately that cinema, or rather Arab films haven't exposed us to their art yet. So I feel now's the time and, just in the same way that Indian films are being accepted on a global scale, it's time for the Arab world as well. And whatever I learn about these countries and this part of the world is extremely fascinating. You can't say there's no stories from here. I think everybody knows the story of Scheherazade, and now it's time to move beyond the fairytales and listen to the reality," says the 26-year-old Mumbai actress, born to Mangalorean parents and raised a Catholic, graduating from Mumbai's St Xavier's College with a major in English literature, today speaking in a polished perfect British accent.

The downside to all her globe-trotting is that today she finds herself with no fixed abode. "I'd like to say I live somewhere, but right now I'm all over the world with my three suitcases that I've been carrying with me for two years. I just keep changing the clothes in the bags," sighs the actress who gained some experience of living out of a suitcase while working as a model for two years.

"Literally, I have no fixed address. I call Bombay my home, but I moved to London a bit last year when I was doing the Woody Allen film [You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger], and I loved that as my second home. I enjoy New York too," says Pinto who recently wrapped Rise of the Apes with James Franco in Vancouver.

Remaining close to her family, including older TV producer sister, Sharon, high school principal mother, Sylvia, and senior bank manager father, Frederick, she has extended family throughout the world as well as spending time with her boyfriend at every opportunity. Declining to comment on speculation that she and Patel are now engaged, she says brusquely: "Of course I'm going to marry but I don't know when."

Following her dizzying multi-cultural film-making tour, she plans on returning to her Indian roots with her sixth post-Slumdog film, starring in Deepa Mehta's period drama, Midnight's Children, based on Salman Rushdie's novel of the same name and featuring an all-Indian cast.

Returning to the topic of Miral and the controversy surrounding an Indian actress playing a Palestinian, its actually quite laughable when you see Pinto seated today alongside author Rula Jebreal, the real Miral, a woman so breathtakingly beautiful you wonder who else Schnabel could have possibly recruited to play this woman who has since become his real life lover.

Discussing the director and author's May-September romance that is still not totally public, Pinto says with typical political correctness: "I think it was very important that they got along with each other. It's an amazing message that there's a Jewish-American guy who gets along perfectly with a Palestinian girl who holds an Israeli passport and they made a film that is about promoting love and about promoting peace.

"I connected with Rula's Miral on so many levels. Forget about the politics involved because she's just such a source of massive inspiration for young women who want to go out there and do something; and not be bound by a past because a lot of people fear the past and cannot look at a future but this is one woman who tried to step out of it. She wasn't born in a wealthy family but without having the kind of resources to actually go out there, she went on to become a fabulous journalist in Italy who is really respected and whose voice is really heard, today making this film and exposing it to the whole world.

"I put it as simply as this: People who believe in peace have accepted the film. And people who still have to make peace with the idea of believing in peace for both sides, rather than one side over the other, they're taking their time to deal with it. The audience response has been different in different parts of the world but that's what we want – we want people to talk so I think the film is doing what it's meant to be doing," she says.

'Miral' is released on 3 December