The story of class divide is not entirely new anymore in movies. Yet in Ramin Bahrani’s crime drama The White Tiger, it feels rejuvenated, mostly because it deals with specific issues of caste and class segregation that have been happening in India for a very long time. Bahrani, who adapted Aravind Adiga’s book of the same name, approaches these subjects with nuance and complexity, and even rage, and while doing so, he draws remarkable performances from his actors, especially from Adarsh Gourav.
In the film, Gourav plays Balram, an innocent but cunning man from a lower class who tries to escape poverty by working as a driver for a wealthy family but then got caught up in some dire circumstances that will change the way he lives his life forever. His performance is nothing short of remarkable. He’s able to display the two sides of his character in an effortless manner. And this amazing performance has earned him a best actor nomination for Independent Spirit Awards and AACTA. We recently had a chance to speak to him over Zoom to talk about the movie and his preparation for the role.
Reyzando Nawara: Firstly, big congratulations on the movie and on your Indie Spirit Awards nomination! Is this the reception that you were always expecting, considering the big names attached to the movie, or is this something that up until this moment still surprises you?
Adarsh Gourav: You know, to be honest bro, I had zero expectations. Of course, I knew that I was getting into a big project and that Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao were gonna be in it and that it’s a Netflix film, but when I was shooting the film, Ramin [Bahrani] didn’t allow me to see any playbacks, so I had no idea how I was doing and nobody on set was allowed to tell me whether I was doing good or bad. My only point of contact to know how I was doing was Ramin himself, and he would always be full of positivity like “oh, you’re doing great,” and all that. And at first, I thought he was just being kind, so I was like “oh, maybe he was just being nice to me to encourage me more to push myself as an actor.” I tried to manage my expectations and keep them really low, so that if something good happens I would feel really surprised by it. So yeah, I didn’t expect much from the film. But now that people are talking about it, and knowing people come up to me and tell me about a particular scene and leave me messages on email or Instagram, I really feel that Ramin wasn’t lying to me. It just feels incredible. It feels like a dream.
I wanna go back a bit to the beginning, can you tell me about how you got involved in the film and attached to the role of Balram in the first place? How was the process like?
In 2019, around May, Tess Joseph, the casting director of the movie, and her team got in touch with me. I had actually been trying to get an audition from Tess for a very long time, and because she’s a very busy casting director, I hadn’t had the opportunity yet. Honestly, the thought of having the chance to audition for Balram just felt out of the world to me that I was just constantly like “man, this was just too big for me.” So when I got this call for The White Tiger, my only thought was to just give a good audition so that I would get calls for more auditions for something else. But then I cleared round one, and then round two, and a month later Ramin went back to New York and Tess told me that they wanted me to play Balram and it just felt so unreal; it just felt like “wow, is this really happening to me?” And that’s pretty much how I ended up getting attached to this project.
I actually read the book as a teenager. I read it when I was 14 years old, just when the book just came out. And it was one of those very popular books that you can easily find everywhere in Bombay. I wasn’t a big reader back then, but my mother or my brother got the book and I read it eventually, so I was aware of the story, I knew Balram’s arc before the audition.
Speaking of Balram, he is such a complex character. He has this unique and interesting duality: on one hand, he is this sweet, innocent man, but on the other hand, he can be very cunning. What particularly drew you to Balram? Was this duality also a part of it?
You know, as you said, it was the duality and the relatability of that duality that interest me the most. I feel like all of us are like Balram; we’re one person in front of our friends but can be a totally different person in front of our family. Our family does not always know about some habits that we’re indulgent in, and our friends don’t always know about a different side that we only show to our family. And this is what eventually drew me to Balram. I tried to understand the core of Balram’s relationships with everyone and what he really feels toward different people; what he feels about his grandmother, what he feels about his elder brother, what he feels about Ashok (Rao) and Pinky (Chopra), who he looks up to as his master and whom he’s ready to do anything for. And understanding all these relationships is what helps me to be able to play the duality of the character.
Was there any kind of research, aside from reading the book, that you did to portray Bahram and his arc authentically?
Yeah, of course. It was integral to me to understand Balram and how he feels. He came from a family of complete have-nots. He grew up in a village and not knowing anything about city life. So before the filming, I decided to pack my bag and stay in this small village in the Eastern part of India. And the idea was just to have a very undiluted and pure experience where I could really talk to people like Balram, listen to their stories, hear what they have to say about people from the city. Basically, just to have a very intimate conversation with people in the village. I actually also wanted to come to Delhi to become a driver for wealthy people, but that was proving to be very difficult cause nobody was just gonna hire a random person as their driver. They would wanna do a background check, they would wanna know how many years of experience this person has as a driver, and I didn’t have any.
[laughs] So I kept thinking of my next best alternative, and I figured maybe I should work at a small shop cause Balram works at a small tea stall and he feels very suffocated and wants to constantly get out of it. So I figured that’s what I needed to do cause I need to understand not just about Balram but also about my own privileges. I need to recognize that and I need to feel how difficult it is to work at a small shop, which I did in Delhi for a couple of weeks where I would be cleaning plates and was getting paid only a hundred rupees a day. It was really in those few weeks that I began to understand what Balram must’ve felt; how trapped he feels and how desperately he wants to get out of his village and create a better life for himself. And these things really helped me in shaping and understanding Bahram, even to small details like how he would walk and talk, and just his general opinions on the things around him.
I read somewhere that the Bengaluru scenes, which is basically the epilogue of the movie, were the first part that was filmed, so was there any challenge in capturing Balram’s growth and evolution throughout the filming process even though it was shot in that order?
Yeah, it was definitely very challenging for me because most of my homework was done around the Balram from the village, not the Balram in Bengaluru. I spent time trying to understand the businessman Balram, but I was really skeptical about that. So when we started shooting the Bengaluru Balram at the beginning of the whole filming process, I was very nervous about it. But Ramin really, really helped me be patient and helped me explore this part of the character more. He gave me more chances to try different things that I wanted to try.
I also feel that the costumes that I was wearing sorta helped me understand who I was playing. In a way, the costumes allowed me to create a specific body language and it changed how I would approach the character, even down to how Balram would talk to the drivers working for him at the end of the movie. I also read a lot of books on body language to learn more about how to create an alpha male persona in the room. So yeah, the whole process actually made me very nervous and it got even a little bit more unnerving when you don’t shot in chronological order, but you just have to get used to it.
One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the dynamic between Balram and Pinky. To some degree, these two characters feel like the same person. But in a lot of ways, they are, of course, very different. They have different worldviews and privileges. Can you tell me what you think of the relationship between your character and Priyanka’s?
As you said, there are similarities between them cause Pinky herself grew up in a lower-class family in America and had to work hard to get to where she is now. And both of them also stood up for themselves when they have to and when no one else would. But on the other hand, I also still feel that they are very different people. I think Pinky likes to think that she’s like Balram, but in reality, she’s maybe not that much the same as him. And it simply comes from the fact that Pinky has seen more comfort and more luxury in life than Balram. But regardless of that, the two have a very interesting relationship. Pinky was this woman who stood up for herself; who dared to fight back people who Balram was scared of. Meanwhile, throughout his life, Balram only knew women who were oppressed and not allowed to have opinions or even to step out of their house with complete freedom. And this what made him in awe and attracted to her; he’s an admirer of Pinky.
I think the reason why Balram decides to drive her to the airport is because he feels that Pinky is the only person who understands him. She’s the only person who wants to sit next to him and tells him that he’s free to go and just be someone new, not just a driver. And it makes him see a human side in her that he doesn’t see in Ashok or everyone around him, which is the reason why he decides to drive her to the airport without telling his master even though he knows he could get in trouble. If that’s not the case, I think Balram would’ve let Ashok know about Pinky’s decision to leave him, but he didn’t, he chose to be quiet about it. So yeah, it’s a complex and layered relationship.
The original source of the movie is a best-selling and award-winning book, do you feel any pressure in telling a story from a highly-acclaimed material?
It’s actually more of an incredible opportunity for me as an actor more than a pressure. Yes, the book is highly acclaimed and so popular all over the world, but to me, that feels more like a strong foundation that really helps me understand where Balram is coming from and how his thought process is like, as well as his relationships with the other characters. But in the filming process, what me and Ramin were always keen on doing was exploring my own version of who Balram is beyond what’s already provided in the book. And that’s actually what I enjoyed doing the most, cause it really challenged me to bring more to the table as an actor. I feel very fortunate to work with a director like Ramin cause he let me have the freedom to explore my character fully in my own way and understanding, allowing me to be so invested both in the character and in the story. And this just made me very personally connected to the film.
The story is set specifically in India, and it deals with specific topics such as class and caste divide in India. Did playing Balram challenge you to see these issues from a different, deeper perspective?
Oh yes, one hundred percent. The story takes place at a time when India was going through a major change, where a lot of IT companies were coming here to invest, and since then, India has made remarkable progress and it’s changed the country in all spectrums, especially in the socio-economic aspect. One of the first things that I felt when I read the book as a teenager was an increase in my awareness of my class and privileges. And that’s what the film also actually does. It makes you think and makes you uncomfortable in some way. It really opens up conversations and makes you aware and more sensitive regarding these class and caste issues and in dealing with all kinds of people around you. That’s what the movie does to me too. When I read the book, when I read the script as well, even when I did my research, the whole process definitely has made me more aware of these subjects.
But also what I found so interesting is even though the book and the movie are set in India and they have a very Indian context to it, I feel like the story is so universal. It’s something that we see all around the world, right? Maybe in different ways and on different levels, but you see this happens everywhere. The film really works because the core of the story is universal; it’s basically a journey of a man from the darkness to the light and I believe a lot of people can relate to it. When I open my inbox, I see messages from New Zealand to Tunisia telling me about how they can resonate with the story, and that’s what eventually makes the film so special.
Can you share your experiences working with the other cast and Ramin himself?
I’ve been a huge admirer of Priyanka and Raj’s works, and to be able to work with them is such an incredible experience. I feel like I’m one of the few lucky ones who get to know them in person and witness the magic happens before me. What really struck me about both of these persons is how passionate and dedicated they are with their craft. The amount of commitment that they displayed, even though they’ve been around for quite some time, never showed any sign of complacency. They gave their heart and soul in every scene. It was just so inspiring just to see that happened.
And with Ramin, of course, it’s been a blessing too. His process was so natural. He would never call action or cut during the filming process; he would just say “whenever you’re ready.” And when the scene ended, you would just see Ramin standing in frame with you. It never felt robotic with him. It was actually a very cathartic experience. And I almost felt spoiled as an actor after working with him. [laugh]
There’s one line in the movie that really struck me; I remember Pinky said something like “America is so yesterday.” So I wanna pick your brain a bit, as an actor, do you share the same sentiment, especially in terms of pop culture where we see non-American arts have been slowly gaining momentum in the past few years?
Of course, I feel like the whole Asian will be the next big thing in pop culture. You just can’t deny that. We’re doing great as a continent, and that’s not a lie. I cant wait to see more representations for all of us, and not just in acting, but all in directing and writing too. We’re literally one-fifth of the world population, so it’s important for us to have more representation, which actually has been happening slowly and steadily. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us Asians.
The White Tiger is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.
Photo credit: Tejinder Singh Khamkha