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How ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ Marries the Indie and Commercial Souls of Freida Pinto

The actor and producer spoke to IndieWire about her call to Indian stories and the Bollywood flair in her latest film.

A woman in a white Regency gown at night; still from "Mr. Malcolm's List."

“Mr. Malcolm’s List”

Bleecker Street

There’s no denying that Freida Pinto has had a career path unlike almost any other modern actor. Thrust into international fame, acclaim, and an undefeated awards streak with 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Mumbai native found herself in a unique position when it was time for what came next.

“Over the last 15 years I’ve managed to learn a lot of things on the producing side and also have learned what my call towards storytelling is,” Pinto told IndieWire during a recent Zoom interview. It’s the call that led her to start the production company Freebird Films, the call that leads her to be judicious about acting projects including “Mr. Malcolm’s List.”

The Regency era romance is the latest in a growing lineup of films that diversify the genre, but it ties back to Pinto’s roots in unexpected ways. Ahead, she tells IndieWire about the film’s Bollywood flair, her career trajectory, and what’s next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: With all of the flair, the costumes, love, romance, drama, courtship — I do feel like this is the most Bollywood movie you’ve ever done.

Frieda Pinto: We have dance as well, do not forget! Except we’re not lip synching. But we have dance, we have the meeting of the eyes and just before they kiss they get separated — yes, we have it all. I didn’t think of it as a Bollywood movie, but now that you are saying it, it really does remind me of that — the elevation of emotion as well as color and costume really could point in that direction.

This is why Bollywood films are so popular all over the world: It’s because they truly are a celebration. It’s not just the song and dance part of it, but everything in between is a celebration. The emotions are a celebration. The highs and lows are a celebration. The games people play are a celebration.

One of my favorite films is “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” and I just love the triangle: The friend not even knowing she’s falling in love, but she’s still out of it, and then there’s a ploy and the two people who fall in love are not the two people you think will fall in love in the end. I feel it has “Mr. Malcolm’s List” does have the makings of it. The other genre that we really pay a nod to is just the romantic comedies of the ’90s, so “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” all of those films.

We really give a nod to that genre, which I absolutely love. It’s my go-to comfort zone. Even today, I can watch “Notting Hill” over and over again.

It really speaks to the universality of the themes within the movie.

Completely. I feel at the end of the day, the styles might be slightly different, but everyone’s telling the same story. It’s the same boy meets girl, falls in love, has an issue, trying to figure out that issue, will they make it, won’t they make it? Are we rooting for the couple — yes, we’re rooting for the couple! And then eventually they come together, and that is a kind of escapism, I feel like right now, in this current present moment, we really need.

We need to escape or else we’re gonna go crazy because there’s a lot of fights that we have to put up right now, and you’re fighting and you’re fighting and you’re fighting. So give us two hours of respite by letting our minds, our bodies, our emotions just escape for just a bit. That’s why I bring up the ’90s rom-coms and that’s why I bring up Bollywood as well, because there’s no other film industry that I can think of that has mastered escapism at such a beautiful level and really gives people the value for the money that they spend towards a ticket. Three hours of nonstop entertainment. This is not three hours, but there’s a lot of similarities.

Two women in Regency gowns, one green and one blue, sitting on a sofa and drinking tea; still from "Mr. Malcolm's List."

“Mr. Malcolm’s List”

Bleecker Street

You’ve had a very unconventional career path for an Indian actor. Is there or was there ever that pull toward Bollywood or to other Indian cinema?

I’ve never stayed away from Indian stories, that’s how I look at it. So whether it was “Trishna” or doing a film like “Love Sonia,” they’re very Indian in nature. When you think of Bollywood you think of like a much bigger production, bigger stages and setups, and “Trishna” and “Love Sonia” were much smaller in that sense. But I’ve never stayed away from Indian stories and, if a good Indian story comes my way, I still do it. If it’s a great story, I want to be part of it. And having said that, I have projects in the pipeline that will be set entirely in India, projects that I’m producing.

So to answer your question, the pull is always to the motherland, always. In order to make that pull land and to make it worthwhile, I am constantly looking for the right stories to tell, stories that I feel I can represent in the most honest and sincere fashion. That’s my mission in terms of being a storyteller, filmmaker, actor in this industry.

Tell me more about your production work. Has it reframed how you work as an actor?

I enjoy producing just as much as I enjoy acting. I constantly get asked, “Which one do you think you’re leaning towards more?” If I have to go back and look into what my childhood was more like, it was all about organizing, putting productions together, amateur theater. The church that I belong to, I would put Christmas plays together and so the pull was always towards producing. But then I also knew that in order to get my little itty bitty productions seen, I had to star in them, so that also became a natural trajectory.

Of course when “Slumdog Millionaire” happened, I wasn’t going to start up as a producer. I started off using this incredible platform that I was given, striking while the iron was hot, trying to get as many roles out there that would get me recognized and then gain as much knowledge and information along the way on how to produce on an international level, because this is not amateur theatre anymore. You get one opportunity to make something, you have a lot of money invested into it and you want to do it right.

All of the storytelling that we do at Freebird Films, as much as it’s focused on humanity, it’s very much focused on women and women’s stories that we don’t get to see. For some reason, some studio in the past thought, “Oh, but why would we tell a story about a black Latin or brown woman, because who’s going to watch it?,” but of course times have changed — we have “Ms. Marvel” — and we need more producers, more people behind the scenes thinking of how to bring these stories to life.

So that is what Freebird Films is really focused on. At the same time we are trying to keep the entertainment quotient pretty high, because in order for something to be successful, and in order for something to really hit home, and if it’s a TV series for people to come back for Season 2 or Season 3, it has to have that binge-able quality to it as well. It is a fine line I constantly tread between telling the stories of my passion and putting stories out there that will really stick, because I have such an indie soul and I’m trying to marry it with the commercial soul.

“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a good balance of it for me. And so that is the journey that my production company is on, that I am on, and we have just the most amazing projects in the pipeline. They just take a lot of work. Producing one single project can take anywhere from two years to four years to 10 years, and I’m hoping I don’t hit the 10-year mark.

A Bleecker Street release, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is now in theaters.

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