A black SUV sidles up to the curb on Pioneer Boulevard and out climbs Freida Pinto in Chanel shades and a royal blue Moschino dress, with her makeup artist, the makeup artist's assistant and her publicist in tow. It's quite an entourage for sleepy Artesia, home to Southern California's Little India, where mom-and-pop restaurants mingle with sari shops and the smell of curry floats out of open doors.
But what else would you expect from Pinto, 24, the Indian beauty whose first big-screen role as Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire" has turned her into an award season sweetheart? In the last few months, the film has won nearly every award possible, and Pinto has been flying from one red carpet to another -- Dubai, to L.A., New York to London.
One place she hadn't been yet was Little India.
When she walks into Standard Sweets & Snacks, a casual South Indian snack bar, people barely look up from their lunches. Pinto may look Hollywood slick, with every shiny hair in place and her lips in a constant state of glossy perfection, but at this moment in her career, she's still able to be almost inconspicuous. With a little prompting from the store manager, though, the recognition spreads. Camera phones come out along with small scraps of paper for autographs.
"When I watched the film in Toronto for the first time, I didn't know what I was getting into," she says, sitting down to a plate of roti and chutney. "The first time I saw my face on screen I felt really nervous and self-conscious."
She needn't have worried. Pinto has gone from fashion model and TV travel show host to Hollywood star overnight and is enjoying every minute of it. "That dreams come true is the biggest surprise ever," she says, revealing that she's been collecting Freida Pinto place cards from all the glittery parties she's attended. "Every moment you blink you miss something."
Back in India, Pinto was a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl, but now designers are lining up to dress her. She's worn Christian Lacroix haute couture, Zac Posen, Oscar de la Renta and Marchesa. Today, she's paired her short floaty designer dress with shiny black lace-up Payless pumps picked up in Toronto. "Maybe they'll offer you a shoe line," I suggest. "I think they should," Pinto responds.
Acting always a dream
The daughter of a school principal and a bank manager, Pinto graduated from college with a degree in English literature. After she finished school, modeling came easy when a photographer discovered her while she was helping a friend at a hair-styling competition. She did commercials for Wrigley and De Beers, along with runway shows and magazine covers.
But what she really wanted to do was act, having devoured the work of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Aamir Khan and Shahid Kapoor.
"In India, it's hard to find a project because most of it is Bollywood, which is very exaggerated," says Pinto, who went through rounds of auditions for six months to land her role in "Slumdog." "Most of what they make is over-the-top escapist, and life isn't always so escapist. I realized what I wanted to do was connect with people, not seem unattainable or untouchable."
In front of a glass case of rose- and pistachio-flavored sweets, Pinto chats with customers about what part of India she is from (the Malad suburb of Mumbai) and the origins of her name ("Pinto is Italian, but I'm 100% Indian.") She signs waiters' order pads, admires her picture in the India Journal and deftly deals with a question about the controversial portrayal of her hometown in the film. "It's a country of 1 billion, so people are going to have opinions," she says.
Back outside, she crosses the street in front of a grocery store window piled high with sacks of basmati rice. "It smells like India," Pinto says, before walking into Cottage Art, a store full of colorful pillows, bangles and kurtas.
The owner comes running from behind the counter. "We're so proud of you!" she tells the young actress, before admitting she hasn't seen the film. Pinto is gracious, posing for photos and talking about how she'll decorate when she moves out of her parents' house. "White walls with a pop of red accessories," she says. "In India, sometimes there's too much color."
Can you imagine?
CDs, saris and swag
By the time she rounds the corner to Ziba Music, two paparazzi have appeared. "Freida, can we have a little wave?" they shout. The scene is so perfect, you'd swear Pinto's people had orchestrated it. After all, this dream sequence can only go on so long, and the red carpet will come to an end. Pinto has yet to line up another project. Her dream role would be something that might otherwise go to Kate Winslet or Meryl Streep. But with her looks and her twinkly smile, she might want to consider a romantic comedy.