Was your Mumbai childhood a world away from Slumdog?
I was lucky – I grew up in a middle-class environment and went to the best school and college in the city. Mumbai is tough. I always say that Slumdog is a very accurate representation of the city: it’s just as hectic as it is depicted in the movie.
It’s crowded and congested, but I love the fact that people from all over India go there to fulfil their dreams. It’s all about the human connections in a country like India; neighbours are incredibly important and, while they sometimes know too much, they will always be there for you.
India is a huge country – how much of it have you seen?
Between the ages of five and 22, I travelled around India on crazy local trains and buses. My maternal grandfather and my uncle were both in the Indian army and we would visit them in their new posts as part of our family vacations. Indian people might think they need to travel abroad to explore different landscapes, but India has mountains, forests, rivers, the sea. We have the culture and architecture, too. India has, in fact, got it all!
What are your earliest memories? My paternal grandparents lived in Mangalore – not Bangalore, as everyone outside India thinks I’m saying – and from the age of five or six my sister and I were sent to stay with them. The scent of my grandmother’s homemade potpourri stays with me, and even the smell of mud from the first rain is distinctive in Mangalore.
My maternal grandparents were farmers who grew rice and tended cattle, so some of my earliest memories involve running around in paddy fields and milking cows. I count myself lucky to have had the kind of wholesome childhood that isn’t just about travelling to fancy hotels. It was a mix of everything and it both toughened me up and kept me in touch with my heritage.
What do you miss most about India? The food! It’s always on my mind. When I’m homesick the first thing I think of is my mum’s home-cooked rice and roast chicken curry. There’s an amazing restaurant in LA that does the same dish, but it’s very different when it’s served at the dining table in Mumbai by my mother. I miss family gatherings.
Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire
You co-present India: Nature’s Wonderland. Is it a good wildlife-spotting destination? There are some incredible places to see wildlife in India, which is the only country where both lions and tigers are to be found in their natural habitat. As a teenager I went to see tigers in Kanha National Park in the central Indian highlands, which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book [Pinto has just finished making a film about the children’s classic that also stars Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch].
And I loved observing the Hoolock gibbons in Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary in Assam, where they live surrounded by tea plantations high in the rain forest. They are monogamous and sing every morning. I just need to see the lions at the Gir National Park in Gujarat now.
Slumdog highlighted the inequality in India – do you think that will ever change? There is a large and unacceptable gap between the rich and poor in India that’s visible to the naked eye. It’s all too easy to become desensitised to the poverty when you see it on a daily basis, but Indian youth have come into their own in recent years and the future is in their hands.
I recently met the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to discuss gender inequality. He had just launched a campaign to try and change the attitude in India to girl children, who are still killed in utero. He agreed to join forces with Girl Rising, one of the charities I work with, which is a big step in the right direction because in a country as vast as India you really do need government support.
Do you miss nature in Los Angeles? When I first went, with Slumdog, I thought the trees lining the streets were fake. But I’ve been here nearly five years now and I know all the best places to hike. The city’s hidden nature helped me to fall in love with it.
Will you ever move back to India? I never left India! I go home three or four times a year if I can. I wouldn’t move to LA full time. I want the best of both worlds.
India: Nature’s Wonderland begins on BBC2 tonight (Tuesday 1st September) at 9.00pm