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Ten years ago it would have been easy for the international community to view Freida Pinto as one of the biggest up-and-coming actresses in the world. The Mumbai-born actress was just 23 when she got her big breakthrough playing Latika opposite Dev Patel’s Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire. The film won Best Picture at America’s Academy Awards, and for his part, Patel went on to become a star, with prominent roles in the HBO show The Newsroom and 2016’s Lion (which was also nominated for Best Picture). Pinto, however, has had a quieter silver screen career, focusing more on TV acting and activism.
The actress has stated that she refuses to be considered a piece of meat, which apparently led to her turning down various roles after Slumdog Millionaire. We don’t necessarily know what those roles were, but it appears that Pinto – who has become a significant voice in women’s empowerment – didn’t want to be cast merely as a sex or love interest. As a result, she hasn’t quite had the film career we might have predicted back in 2008 after her explosively popular international debut. However, she’ll be back in a major role this coming autumn, as she’s set to appear in Warner Bros.’ adaptation of The Jungle Book, simply titled Mowgli.
We’re a little bit unclear on Pinto’s role in the project, and her character isn’t currently listed on IMDB. A couple years ago, when we were first hearing whispers of this film, it was said that the actress would play two role, voicing Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother and appearing in a human role as well. However, this is a little bit hazy. And the bigger question is, will Mowgli work as a blockbuster film?
If we look at it as an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s original novel, it actually appears to be on oddly shaky ground. This novel is part of a batch of 1890s adventure tales that have long inspired spinoffs and adaptations, and of late they’ve been going poorly. A Dracula revival was attempted in recent years, with the “Vampire King” returning first in a reasonably popular slot arcade featured at an Irish gaming site and then in the Universal film Dracula Untold. The slot game is fairly harmless, but the film earned a very poor reception. More recently, The Invisible Man – another tale from this curiously impactful 1890s adventure literature era – was slated for a modern film as part of a lineup of Universal monster movies that appears to have been scrapped. Lumping The Jungle Book in with its contemporaries, Mowgli would appear to be a risky proposition.
Continuing to look at the source material, there’s also the fact that Kipling’s writing is still viewed as controversial by some. While there has been a museum designed in his name in Mumbai and there are those who have no issue with his work, some in India remain critical of how Kipling studied the country and used it in his stories. More broadly speaking, a modern society that at least in part attempts to address racial biases might frown upon Kipling, who is said by some to have harbored such biases against non-white peoples.
With all this said about Kipling and The Jungle Book, and the era the book was written in, however, there’s also a very fair argument to be made that Mowgli will be thoroughly divorced from its source material. In various forms The Jungle Book has become better known as a cinematic adventure than as a book. Disney has produced multiple versions of the tale on the big screen, and Pinto herself has spoken about her love of the films growing up in India. Just two years ago we saw the most recent adaptation, which earned rave reviews. One critic summed things up quite simply, stating that 2016’s The Jungle Book lived up to the Walt Disney classic, delivering as all it was expected to be and much more.
This is both a good and bad sign for the new version in which Pinto will star. On the one hand, it appears there remains a strong appetite for this particular story, even if the original novel’s contemporaries aren’t so lucky and the author is controversial. On the other, Mowgli will have a very recent hit to contend with and attempt to outdo when it reaches cinemas later this year.
At the very least it’s quite an interesting project, and if it’s a hit we could yet see Freida Pinto become the film star she once looked destined to be.