When Freida Pinto walks into a meeting with a filmmaker or producer she announces, "I am not your exotic beauty."
Make no mistake about it, the 27-year-old actress and former model is quite stunning on screen or in person, but Pinto, who is from Mumbai, wants them to know that she is not just simply eye candy from India.
"It's really frustrating at times when people see you as that," says Pinto, who was propelled to fame in "Slumdog Millionaire," Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-winning film. "It's up to me to decide if I want to be the exotic beauty. ... I really want to be challenged with roles that don't really focus on just that."
She has certainly gotten her wish with her latest film, "Trishna." The film is a reinterpretation of Thomas Hardy's 19th-century novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," directed by Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party," "A Mighty Heart"). It is told in an improvised, somewhat documentary style, and Winterbottom has telescoped and adapted the story to fit the Indian landscape.
Trishna is a poor young woman from Rajasthan, a province in northwest India, who catches the eye of a wealthy British-born Indian named Jay, played by Riz Ahmed. (In the novel there were two men, but Winterbottom has combined them into one.) After Trishna's father is hurt in an accident, Jay hires her to work at his father's luxury hotel and takes Trishna for a lover.
But anyone who has read "Tess" knows this is not a romantic fairy
"It's very deftly adapted in a way, because it's 19th-century England becoming 21st-century India," notes Pinto. "In some ways it's not very different with the whole industrialization and modernization happening in India now, but culturally it's very different."
The film represents a part of India that still exists, says Pinto, who grew up in a middle-class existence in Mumbai. (Her mother was a teacher, her father a bank manager.) So Trishna's life was in many ways very different from her own.
For the role, Pinto spent time with a rural Rajasthani family (who, except for the mother and father, doubled as her film family), learning their way of life, including milking goats and cows.
"I find that so enriching to learn something about my own culture. We didn't try to change the family," says Pinto. "We would join them in their morning chores and did whatever they did. We pretty much understood from them how the women in their family were to behave in the presence of a man, which in turn would help lay the foundation for Trishna's character -- very obedient to the male members of their family."
At first, Jay seems kindly, sensitive. He takes Trishna to Mumbai and exposes her to a modern world, but she's not suited to that life, and instead of her becoming freer, he grows more dominant.
"The caste system still exists to some degree in certain parts of India," says Pinto. "But the class system is more prominent than the caste system."
Trishna's passive nature went against the actress's own instincts. While people have asked her about the sexuality in the film (it is more implied than graphic), Pinto says it was even more difficult being mute while shooting those scenes.
"Not having a say in what was happening is part of Trishna's upbringing. She's been told that is the way to do it," says Pinto.
"Because a number of scenes were improv, Michael was my guiding force throughout it. I found myself responding and retaliating at times, and he'd ask me to hold back, saying this is not Trishna and let whatever is happening just go to your head, let it come through your eyes and your body language but don't say anything."
Pinto says she read the novel in college and "found it very frustrating to watch Tess go through what she went through and not stand up.''
"Now that I've done the research, I've realized that girls like that do exist," she says. "It is part of reality and not just in India, but many, many parts of the world -- even America."
There is an aching quality to Pinto's performance in "Trishna" that ultimately makes you forget about her beauty, but not before she dances, which in some ways represents a freedom that the character doesn't understand.
"That was Michael's idea. He just thought because I was Indian that I could dance. I thought it was very presumptuous of him, but he was actually quite right," says Pinto, who had wanted to be an actress from a young age. "I got someone to help me with some choreography, but as soon as I started playing music I just realized I was doing my own thing anyway, from what I had done growing up."
While the dancing in "Trishna" is either traditional or Bollywood style, Pinto is expanding her repertoire in "Desert Dancer," a true story about an Iranian dancer that will begin filming later this year.
"I'm getting a chance to learn more formal styles of dancing, whether it is ballet or modern dancing, and being exposed to Pina Bausch, Martha Graham and Bob Fosse. It's been very educational for me," says Pinto. "And once you get over the inhibition to move, it takes away inhibitions to do so many other things. It's something that I've learned over the last six months."