The Unlikely Stars of 'Slumdog Millionaire'

Giggling into the phone, Indian actress Freida Pinto describes her brief encounter with Angelina Jolie during a recent trip to Los Angeles. Pinto says Jolie complimented her while she was eating and she was scared to speak.

"I didn't say anything because I didn't want to spit food out of my mouth," Pinto told a reporter in between back-to-back television interviews promoting her first film, "Slumdog Millionaire."

As Hollywood awaits the announcement of the Academy Awards nominees Thursday, bookies and Bollywood fans around the world are betting "Slumdog" will top the lists.

With its recent victories at the Golden Globes, "Slumdog" is now recognized as the international underdog success story of the awards season. Had Fox Searchlight not picked up the Danny Boyle-directed movie after its original backer shut down, the movie may have gone straight to DVD.

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Of course that didn't happen to this rich and vibrant Bollywood-rooted fairytale about an orphan from the slums of Mumbai competing on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" And for many of those associated with it, the film's little-movie-that-could status is not surprising.

"It seems like it was all written up there for us," says Freida Pinto, who plays "Latika."

By "up there," the gorgeous former model with long black hair and a contagious smile means "in the stars." And listening to her as she widens her large dark eyes and talks about the experience, it's easy to believe there was some magic dust sprinkled over the set of the film.

Pinto had never acted before and had never even taken an acting class, yet was chosen from among Mumbai's famed beauties for the role. Throughout interviews she repeatedly gushes about how grateful she is that Boyle gave her a chance.

"It's a rags-to-riches story," she says.

Despite her lack of experience, the actress' background and understanding of the city and its young slum dwellers lends itself to the movie role.

The actress grew up in Mumbai's northern "suburbs" – neighborhoods more similar to the rest of the overcrowded and chaotic city than the green lawns and white picket fences associated with the term.

Each day, along with seven million others, Pinto rode the trains to reach her college in south Mumbai. The city's trains are the most efficient mode of transportation, but they are also the most crowded and deadly trains in the world. About 4,000 people die each year riding the rails.

The edges of the tracks are filled with small tents and shacks that serve as home to some of the city's estimated 18 million people.

"Anytime I traveled to any destination, I probably passed one slum area or two, at least. And anytime I traveled by an auto rickshaw in India I would meet these little kids at traffic signals who would come and start begging for money," she says.

"When they see me they run away and say 'Oh my god she's going to give us a lecture on begging' and 'Why are you not going to school?'"

British actor Dev Patel plays the lead role of "Jamal Malik" in his feature film debut. Patel was on Britain's Channel 4's teen series "Skins," and director Boyle's daughter suggested him for the role.

Bollywood child star Tanay Cheddha also seemed destined for the film. Cheddha, 12, plays a younger version of Jamal.

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