‘It's the worst sort of betrayal – sold by husbands or fathers’: Freida Pinto on the pain behind her sex trafficking film

Margarette Driscoll
Freida Pinto at the UK premiere of 'Love Sonia' in London - Getty Images Europe

Freida Pinto had her MeToo moment when she first arrived in Hollywood, a decade ago.

In a fairy tale rise to fame, the Indian model had been plucked out of nowhere to star in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a part which earned her a BAFTA nomination. Now she was faced with a big, bad wolf in the shape of a film company executive, offering another role… if she played along.

“It was a very uncomfortable situation, but I was lucky in that Slumdog had put me in a powerful position so I didn’t have to think ‘Oh, I’m going to lose a job if I put this person in his place’,” she says. 

“I thought ‘Hey, if I’m not going to have this job I’ll have others – so this is not the be all and end all’. I just feel miserable for women who can’t do that.”

The incident occurred in the whirlwind of change that tore through her life following Slumdog’s international success. Though Pinto, now 34, had dreamed of being an actress ever since she was at primary school, the reality of stardom came as a shock.

“I lived a very normal, middle class life in Mumbai. I travelled on local trains and buses, but suddenly that world was shut down for me out of need for safety and security,” she says. “The constant being looked at, being trailed by the paparazzi – the invasion of privacy felt very disconcerting.”

Love Sonia is an uncomfortable study of India’s burgeoning sex trade

Falling in love with her British co-star, Dev Patel, only intensified the attention. The picture-perfect couple stayed together for six years – and remain friends – but have said that part of what sparked their relationship was that “we were both in this surreal situation”.

A decade on, Pinto thinks she has found a “new normal”. She has a new boyfriend, American adventure photographer Cory Tran, who describes himself as a traveller and adrenaline junkie. Indian newspapers have been speculating that they may marry after a recent trip to that shrine to love, the Taj Mahal.

“So much time has passed since Slumdog now, I think I’ve learned the art of blending in,” she says. “There will always be that one person who calls out my name and wants a picture when I am walking across Leicester Square, but I go out without make-up unless I am promoting a film. I’m on guard, but I’m a lot more relaxed.”

In her thirties, Pinto has grown into a fearless, outspoken feminist who has put her money where her mouth is in supporting women in her industry. She is part of not-for-profit group, We Do It Together, which provides finance for features and documentaries focusing on women’s empowerment. She campaigns for women’s education and supported Tanashree Dutta, the first Bollywood actress to complain of sexual harassment.

She does, though, acknowledge that her face has largely been her fortune and, in 2009, signed a seven-year contract with L’Oreal to promote the company’s products. She drew the line at promoting skin-lightening products, which are popular in India. Yet, earlier this week, Pinto said that she believed L’Oreal had colour-corrected her complexion in advertising shoots without her consent – “I’m sure they did because that’s not the colour of my skin you saw in a few of the campaigns” – something the cosmetics giant has strongly denied.

Freida Pinto with Love Sonia co-stars Mrunal Thakur and Richa Chadha at the film's UK premiere  Credit: Getty

She is in London for a few days for the opening of Love Sonia, a brutally compelling tale of sisterly love. Pinto, who now lives in LA, first read the script while she was filming Slumdog Millionaire. “It’s taken ten years to get it to the screen because it wasn’t the easiest film to finance. In India it was thought to be too dark,” she says. “Hello? The world is dark.”

The story revolves Preeti and Sonia, teenage girls from a remote village, who get caught up in India’s burgeoning sex trade. After the repeated failure of his crops, their desperate father sells Preeti to a local landlord, who ships her off to Mumbai. Sonia follows, hoping to rescue her sister, but is herself kidnapped and forced into a backstreet brothel. Pinto plays Rashmi, a hardened prostitute who introduces the teenager to the brutal reality of her new life.

Rashmi is beautiful, brittle and untrustworthy, but Pinto says we should not be too quick to judge women in her situation: “The ones who have landed in this hell have been betrayed and it’s the worst sort of betrayal, sold by the husbands or fathers they trusted.”

Pinto grew up in an affluent suburb of Mumbai, knowing nothing of the city’s ghastly underworld. Poverty was visible on the streets but as the daughter of a school headmistress and bank manager, hers was the safe, comfortable middle-class world of privileged girls.

Freida Pinto with ex-partner and co-star Dev Patel in Danny Boyle's 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire opened her eyes to the unpredictable, often cruel world of India’s downtrodden (the film tells the story of a street child who become a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire), spurring her into campaigning against poverty and exploitation.

Likewise, Love Sonia has been a masterclass in the horrors of the sex trade. In retrospect, she can’t believe how naïve she was when a pair of former prostitutes came on set to advise. She asked one of them what would have happened if she had fallen in love? Would she grabbed that chance at another life and run away? 

“She laughed at me,” admits Pinto. “She said ‘love only exists in your world’.” 

Sex trafficking and human slavery is a huge global industry, with young women from poor areas particularly vulnerable. In India, 270 women and girls go missing every day.

“It’s a billion-dollar market,” explains Pinto, who studied economics as part of her degree at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. “A girl costs $40,000 from the time she is picked up and groomed and trafficked, but that girl will make her pimp $2m in her lifetime, so you can see how this all is driven by money.”

Love Sonia was inspired by the real story of a girl rescued from a shipping container in LA. In the film, Sonia and her fellow prostitutes are trafficked to Hong Kong and to America into the clutches of men prepared to pay high prices, particularly for very young girls they believe to be virgins.

“It makes you wonder, in a progressive society like America or in the UK [where human trafficking is said to be worth more than £100m a year], what is the government really doing about this problem?” says Pinto. “There will only be a supply if there is a demand. I’ve become more alert, maybe a bit paranoid. I’ve definitely seen girls being pimped out at fancy hotels.

“When I went on a trip to Sierra Leone there were white businessmen being serviced by very young, underage girls. Their parents were so poor and so desperate they would send them. There, or in a country like India, it’s complicated. The problems are so many: how do you solve a father’s poverty, so he doesn’t feel the need to sell his daughter?

“We have to talk about the issues driving this, not just assume it is men being monsters. Surely it’s up to people who have everything going for them – money, family – to stand up. It must be possible to have a crackdown.”

She sees education as the key to progress and likes to think of herself as a role model. “I feel I have the power at least to help girls feel worthy,” she says. “India loses 33 per cent of its GDP because girls are not educated. If they were, they would invest that in their families and right back into their communities and the country. It’s counter-productive to think that when a girl child is born she is a burden. We really need to change that mindset.”

Love Sonia is on UK general release

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