“I don’t have too many Twitter followers followers, because I talk about education. People want to know what I’m wearing. They want selfies!” exclaims actress and L’Oréal beauty Freida Pinto, at the launch of Mousse Absolue, a hair colour–perfecting innovation timed to coincide with the Toronto International Film Festival’s flashbulb frenzy. Instead, the sweet-mannered 29-year-old talks about what’s on her mind—the need for schooling girls in developing countries or the horrifying reality of violence against women. On the recent headline-making gang rape in her home city of Mumbai, she tweeted, “Shame! Anger! … I long for the day when our politicians stop this talk about ‘strictest punishment’ & actually dole it out in its full measure & without delay.”
Pinto’s was a privileged upbringing (her father was a bank manager and her mother a teacher), but the memory of girls begging instead of attending class still haunts her. “My team always tells me, ‘Post something glamorous,’ but it feels very out of character,” says Pinto, an ambassador for Plan’s Because I Am a Girl campaign.
In 2008, her first film, Slumdog Millionaire, premiered at TIFF. Only one photographer and one journalist came to the red carpet. Yet she catapulted to fan favourite overnight, and roles with a social message keep coming: “The industry thinks, Girl who goes through a lot of pain and suffering? Freida! I would like to inflict pain next time,” she jokes. She’ll next appear in the based-on-a-true-story Desert Dancer, which centres on a male performing artist persecuted by the oppressive Iranian regime (she plays a fellow dancer).
As Pinto plots how to expand beyond “victim” roles, no matter how challenging, she praises the work of stereotype-busting women directors. “To represent the female sex is so important in film and TV; it contributes to changing mindsets,” says Pinto. “Thank God for [Zero Dark Thirty’s] Kathryn Bigelow, who proves heavy action is not just a male director’s department.”
Questioning preconceptions would help social progress in India, she argues, whether it’s challenging the notion that women must be housewives or ending abuse. “When people understand that women are entitled to respect and dignity—that’s when things will change.”