When she read the script for “Desert Dancer,” her latest film, Freida Pinto says she didn’t truly fathom how literal that title was until well into rehearsals.
A dancer of some experience, as evidenced by her breakout turn in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Mumbai-born Pinto put in a year of preparation for “Dancer,” “just to get the stamina” required.
“You think, ‘Learn the choreography, and when the camera’s rolling, show off your moves.’ But this was more physically and emotionally daunting than that.
“We did not realize how difficult it was going to be to dance on sand. It’s like moving through water — very hot, heavy water.”
“Desert Dancer” tells the true story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, played by Reece Ritchie in the film. He taught himself to dance in revolutionary/reactionary Iran, where dance is “not illegal, just forbidden,” as his character is told in the movie.
Pinto plays Ghaffarian’s love interest, a sensuous siren secretly trained by her ballerina mother. When the underground dance troupe Ghaffarian forms wants to perform, they and their audience have to sneak out of town, into the desert, to dance.
“The arts are truth,” Pinto says. ” The arts can’t lie. And the arts have opinions, opinions that repressive, thought-controlling regimes don’t want to hear. That’s why they fear the arts.”
“Desert Dancer” is earning mixed reviews, but even bad notices have praised the dancing, with critics echoing Sara Stewart of the New York Post’s opinion that “the film takes off during its own dance sequences, especially those between Ritchie and Pinto.”
The dance in the film was choreographed by Akram Khan with an eye toward suggesting the sensibilities of modern day Iran.
“We were told, ‘They should NEVER touch.’ Our characters should express their feelings in ways that don’t violate the edicts against public touching.
“But that means we can’t use each other’s body weight to support one another, to play off one another. It took some getting used to. Sensuality is harder to convey when you don’t touch. Our choreographer decided that.”
But sensuality has never been difficult for Pinto to get across. From the day the world first saw her in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog,” the model-turned-actress has been hailed as one of the screen’s great beauties. Great directors from Woody Allen (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) and Michael Winterbottom (“Trishna”) to Terence Malick (“Knight of Cups”) have come calling.
Still, the roles she’s offered can too often seem exotic or “antiseptic,” San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle suggests. And Pinto knows it.
“There are many roles I’d love to be considered for, but producers or whoever look at me ethnically, when actually the role could be a woman of any race. It’s ambiguous on the page.
“I’m just not on their radar, and if I show it and they’re looking for a white girl, they’re still going to give it to the white girl.”
But at 30, Pinto keeps knocking at those producers’ doors, and has an action adventure picture that could play on her exotic looks in the works. She has plans to produce her own film project later this year. And she’s not losing hope that “this art form with such power to change people’s minds, will change its mind about women and minority women.”
Which moves her to quote a line from her “Slumdog” co-star and ex-beau Dev Patel’s movie, “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,:” one that she suggests is something she took as a life lesson she’ll carry for years.
“‘Everything will be all right at the end. And if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.'”