"There were times when the director would ask me to tone it down," reveals Freida Pinto, talking about her new film, Black Gold. At the film's high profile world premiere at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Pinto's performance was met with some unmistakable tut-tutting beneath the burkas. The reason? Her Princess Leyla owed more to Princess Leia in her sexy belly-button baring boudoir attire – more harem charmer than pristine princess.
Based on Hans Ruesch's sweeping historical novel The Great Thirst, set in 1930s Arabia at the dawn of the oil boom, the film focuses on a young Arab prince torn between allegiances to a conservative father and his modern, liberal father-in-law. The film marks the Doha Film Institute's first foray into major international film-making, a feat made possible by populating a quintessentially Arab tale with an ethnic mish-mash – French director Jean Jacques-Annaud and a cast featuring Spaniard Antonio Banderas and Briton Mark Strong as warring emirs, the rising French-Algerian star Tahar Rahim as an Arab prince and the Ethiopian actress and Estée Lauder model Liya Kebede as a rebel tribeswoman. Rounding out this global catwalk of characters are Brits Akin Gazi, Riz Ahmed and Jan Uddin.
Yet it is left to Pinto to take the heat. Blessed and cursed with an all-purpose beauty that passes for every ethnicity, from her native India to far-flung corners of Palestine, Greece and Arabia, Pinto has grown weary of being a pretty punch-bag for critics who argue that she shouldn't portray cultures that don't belong to her. Today she picks her words carefully: "For me, it was very difficult because, as a 21st-century woman, I would want to turn around and say to Antonio's character, 'I will not divorce him. How dare you tell me what to do!' But Leyla has been brought up differently, so she's slowly but surely trying to get there."
Deferring blame for her revealing wardrobe on to Black Gold's costume designer Fabio Perrone, she says, "There's a certain royalty that comes with vintage costumes and I had an almost two day play-date with Fabio. Jean-Jacques was mindful of dressing me up as the traditional princess while also communicating her desire to just break out and be modern. It's a blend of both," she says. The 27-year-old actress, who was raised as a Catholic, tackles a similar quandary in her own life; for her steamy sex scene with Henry Cavill in Immortals she apparently hired a "butt double".
It's hard not to feel sorry for the Indian beauty with the perfect English accent who, having won fame four years ago in Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, has been criticised at every turn for her artistic choices. She has played an Arab girl in Julian Schnabel's Miral and a Greek priestess in Tarsem Singh's Immortals as well as apparently "selling out" to Hollywood with roles in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Rupert Wyatt's blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Despite working with the Indian director Singh and playing Indian girls in both Slumdog and Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, she apparently still doesn't qualify for Bollywood status. Anxious to correct that perception, in November she hosted a private dinner for Bollywood directors in Mumbai at which guests included the influential film-makers Vishal Bhardwaj, Abbas Tyrewala and Anubhav Sinha.
Born in Mumbai to Mangalorean parents – her mother was a high school principal and her father a senior banking official – she earned a degree in English literature from Mumbai's St Xavier's College before signing to Elite Models, where she became used to living out of a suitcase.
"My heart will always be in Mumbai, but I've kind of moved to London. That's my second home," she says. "I love London. Love the city, love the people there. When I'm in London I stay at my friend's apartment, but whenever I need to recoup, India is the place to go and be with my family."
"I still haven't splurged on anything since Slumdog was a hit," she says almost apologetically. "I used my first big pay-cheque to put a deposit on a flat in Mumbai, but that fell through – so I'm still looking for that one place to put my feet up."
She has been dating her Slumdog co-star Dev Patel for three years. "We have shared so much together, and he is always the person I go to first. When you've shared something like that, you have no-one else to go to but that person who completely understands. So
if I have a complete downer, he knows exactly how to uplift my moods and I can do the same for him. It actually helps a lot having gone through the same experience, when that experience is so unique."
The Slumdog sweethearts captured the media's imagination and adoration as they trod the world's red carpets together. Today, they're less vocal about their love. Patel, currently in cinemas with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and six years younger than Pinto, has recently declared that he is too young for marriage. Pinto agrees.
"Some people don't actually know that he's six years younger than I am!" she says, huge brown eyes widening. Is he too young for her? "Actually, no. He's too mature. I keep telling him, 'Stop being an old man!' He's just an old soul. The way he speaks and thinks – he's so philosophical and deep. I'm like, 'You don't sound like a 21-year-old to me!' At least that was not how I was when I was 21."
Not that she dismisses the idea of marriage and motherhood further down the road. "Oh, I want all of that one day. I feel being an actress is probably not half as difficult as being a mother, and I do not know when I will be ready for that kind of a decision. I've seen my own mother do it, and I look at her and how she dabbled in school and how she managed raising her children, and I don't think I'm ready for it. But it is more commendable than being an actress."
She is wary of trying to re-create their original screen magic together. "I don't think something like a Slumdog could be repeated by the two of us, only because the expectations that were built on that project were so high. And I know that it would be difficult to live up to those expectations. If it were a comedy, or maybe a dark comedy, I'd be interested in trying that out with him. He's not just a terrific actor – what many people don't know if they've not met him is that he has an amazing sense of comic timing; and a comic timing that doesn't hurt people – just a very light-hearted way that keeps you laughing throughout the day."
In a culture where fame is perceived as everything, Pinto admits that she isn't always up to the fame game. "I do go through a lot of down moments. I have plenty of those." She laughs. "OK fine, poor girl, whatever! But I do have those moments and I think it's perfectly fine for me to have them. I have found a way of dealing with those moments and using them in film sometimes. Every experience is one for the diary."
'Black Gold' is released on 24 February