Escaping a seemingly predestined fate of poverty with a pure sense of idealism is a noteworthy journey that many young adults strive to take as they set out on their own. But overcoming obstacles to rise in the ranks and become-and stay-a powerful and visionary businessman isn’t always an easy task. In the upcoming crime drama, ‘The White Tiger,’ actor Adarsh Gourav makes his leading role debut as the protagonist of Ashok, who’s willing to do whatever it takes raise in the ranks of India’s caste system. But the young dreamer soon realizes that in order to become-and stay-successful, his morals and beliefs must drastically change to fit his new environment.
Ramin Bahrani wrote, directed and produced the film, which is set to be released this Friday, January 22 on Netflix. ‘The White Tiger’ is based on the 2008 award winning, New York Times bestselling book of the same name by first-time author, Aravind Adiga.
‘The White Tiger’ follows Balram Halwai (Gourav) as he narrates his epic and darkly humorous rise from a poor villager to a successful entrepreneur in modern India. Cunning and ambitious, he maneuvers his way into becoming a driver for successful businessman Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), who have just returned to India from living in New York. Society has trained Balram to be one thing—a servant—so he makes himself indispensable to his rich masters. But after a night of betrayal, he realizes the corrupt lengths they will go to trap him and save themselves. On the verge of losing everything, Balram rebels against a rigged and unequal system to rise up and become a new kind of master.
Gourav and Rao generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘The White Tiger’ during individual exclusive interviews. Among other things, the performers discussed how they both enjoyed working with Bahrani as the movie’s director, as he encouraged them to collaborate with him on the development of their characters’ arcs throughout the production. The actors also embraced the fact that the themes in the screen adaptation, like the novel, are still universal and relatable to viewers worldwide, as people everywhere strive to do whatever it takes to improve their circumstances.
The conversation with Gourav began with him delving into what attracted him to his character of Balram, and how he was cast in ‘The White Tiger.’ “I think it was an incredible opportunity for me to audition for a character as complex as Balram, because I got to play two characters within one; he transition from the light into the dark,” he shared.
“I read the book when I was a teenager, and it left a very lasting impression on me. I cried (while reading) it, and I could completely relate to it. It also spoke about characters I had seen around me while I was growing up,” the actor continued.
“So when I had the chance to audition for it, I jumped at it. But I knew it was very unrealistic that I would even have the chance to play Balram,” Gourav admitted. “The reason why I auditioned for it was that I wanted to impress the casting director (Tess Joseph), and make sure that I’m called for other things in the future.
“But then about a month, and five or six auditions later, I got the part. It was very exciting to be chosen to play Balram,” the actor added.
Rao began his interview by explaining how he became attached to play Ashok in the drama, and what drew him to the role. “I read the book when it came out in 2008 and really liked it. Then later on in 2019, the casting director, Tess Joseph, contacted me. She told me about the film and that Ramin wanted to meet me, so we met in Mumbai.
“We then did some readings, and then after a couple of days, they told me that they wanted me to play Ashok, and I was more than happy to,” the actor shared. “I have always been a big admirer of Ramin’s work…so I was very excited when I found out that I would be a part of his film. So I immediately said yes to it; there was no second thought behind it.
“Ashok’s also a complex character; he’s also someone who’s a victim of the system,” Rao revealed. “It’s a system he never believed in, but he eventually became a part of it. Also, his relationships with Balram, Pinky and his family intrigued me. There was so much for me to do as an actor, and it excites me as an actor when I see there are so many different challenges.”
When Ashok and Belgram first meet in ‘The White Tiger,’ Rao’s character is one of the only people in his family who’s considerate of his new driver’s feelings. But after the tragic night of betrayal between the two men occurs, Belgram starts to realize that even his favorite master will take corrupt lengths to save himself and his family at the servant’s expense. The actor then delved into what the process was like of working with Gourav to create the distinct relationship between their characters.
“I knew of Adarsh before this movie, as I had seen some of his previous films, and liked those performances. When I found out that Adarsh would be playing Balram, I was happy because he’s a talented guy, and a very dedicated actor,” Rao noted as he praised his co-star.
“The way that Ramin directs is that he gives a lot of freedom to his actors to explore their characters. When you have a good actor in front of you, that enhances your performance, and that’s exactly what happened with Adarsh,” the actor continued. “There was a lot of improvisation involved. We were both trying to be really honest with our characters, and truthful to the scenes…Ramin really helped us elevate our characters.”
Gourav also chimed in on his experience of working with his co-stars during the production. “It was fantastic to work with Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra. I’ve been inspired by their work, and was so excited to get to work with both of them,” he revealed. “We had the time to do some table reads, and discussed our characters’ backgrounds and intentions.
“But I think in the larger picture, all of us did our own homework…I was cast about two-and-a-half or three months before we began filming, and went on my own journey,” the actor continued.
“But when it came to working on set, the three of us were the characters we were playing…It was incredible to work with two veterans, especially with a genius like Ramin. He gave us so much artistic and creative freedom to explore our characters as actors. We would let the scenes take us where they wanted to, so it was a great experience for me to get to work with all three of them,” Gourav added.
Following up on his working relationship with Bahrani on the screen adaptation, Gourav further gushed what a fantastic experience he had collaborating with the filmmaker. “It was such a cathartic experience for me to be able to find my own truth. To be able to be included at every juncture of the film was amazing. Ramin would ask me my opinion on the character, like the type of clothes I thought he would wear,” he shared.
“So when it becomes that personal for you, you put everything you have into the character, and hope things work out, which they did. We had a great time shooting with Ramin,” the actor further gushed.
“I think the best thing about him as a director is that he doesn’t say ‘Action;’ he says, ‘Whenever you’re ready.’ That humanized the whole process, as to me as an actor, the world action makes me feel like a robot. But when you have someone who humanizes (the acting process) by saying ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ it makes it feel so much more organic,” Gourav added.
Rao further praised the director’s work and their bond during the production. “I think there was an instant connect in our first meeting in Mumbai. I really liked him; we all know that he’s a really good director, and he’s also an amazing human being. I also really liked his energy. He was so passionate about the film and characters,” the actor shared.
“We kept in touch (after our first meeting), and he went back to New York, and I was filming (another project) here in Mumbai. I then went to New York to meet him again, and we went out to dinner,” Rao continued.
“Ramin became a friend, and that really helped. He’s really sensitive and emotional, and wanted to get to know me and about my life. I lost my parents a couple of years back, which is so personal to me, but we talked about that; I’ve never really spoken about that with anybody else. But I had that faith in Ramin,” the actor divulged.
“When we started filming, I saw this really emotional, intelligent director, so I had immense faith in him,” Rao continued. “I’m so happy with the way Ramin has worked on this film, and to also have him in my life now, and be able to call him my friend.”
Further speaking of the fact that the film is based on the book, Gourav expressed his appreciation of having the source material to reference during his preparation to play Balram. “It was incredibly helpful to have that pre-existing material. I think it made my job a little bit easier because I had some background and context on my character and the story,” he noted.
“Ramin and I also had discussions about how I should also find my own truth while playing Balram; I should base my performance on the book, and should also explore the character on my own,” the actor divulged.
“So I decided to put myself in a situation where I would understand Balram. I packed my bags and went to a small village in the eastern part of India, and spent a couple of weeks there,” Gourav shared. “That was amazing because I got so much perspective into Balram’s view of the world. After that, I went to Delhi and worked in a small food store for a couple of weeks, and helped the owner clean plates, keep the floor tidy and do small errands. So I think (having the book and visiting the different areas of India) helped me understand the world that Balram came from.”
Rao also chimed in on his appreciation of having the novel serve as the source material for the movie, and noted that having the book helped him form Ashok’s arc throughout the screen adaptation. “Ramin worked on the script for many years, and he was trying to make the film for many years. Aravind Adiga, the writer of the book, and Ramin were flatmates at one point in time, and the book is actually dedicated to Ramin,” he revealed.
“So Ramin knew these characters inside out. Therefore, everything we needed as actors was there in the screenplay, so I didn’t have to go back to the book again. There were some minute changes to my character in the film, and I also tried to make him more human,” the actor further divulged.
“I didn’t want to play someone who was always so negative; there are days when we’re really happy and want to talk to everyone with such excitement. But there are also days when we just want to be with ourselves. That’s what I tried to do with Ashok to make him more human,” Rao continued. “He didn’t want to be doing what he was doing, but he was just part of the system. He couldn’t do what Balram did and say no; he could only keep saying yes to everyone.”
‘The White Tiger’ was shot on location throughout India, which was an experience that Gourav also embraced. “It was amazing. We primarily shot in the northern part of India, including in Delhi and nearby towns. Delhi is a place that I end up shooting in every year…so it was very nostalgic for me to go back to a city where I’ve shot so many times before,” he shared. “We were shooting in the cold of Delhi, so some of the scenes became very challenging physically…It was also hard to maintain our emotions. But overall, I think it was a good experience to shoot in and around Delhi.”
Rao shared his co-stars sentiments about being able to shoot the drama on location. “We shot most of the film in Delhi during the winter, and it’s pretty cold there during that time. At that time, the air there was so unhealthy, as there’s smog there, but luckily, we managed to finish our film, and I’m very happy about that,” he shared.
“The way that Ramin showcased Delhi is different than what we’ve seen before; he really understands the heartbeat of the city, which he captured really well. So I’m really excited to see how people are going to react to it now,” the actor added.
With production on ‘The White Tiger’ now complete, and it premiering on Netflix later this week, Gourav also expressed his appreciation that the streaming served picked up the film. “Netflix is the largest platform in the world, as it’s streaming in over 180 countries, and millions of people are subscribers. I feel very fortunate that our film was picked up by Netflix,” he noted. He added that he hopes having the drama play on the streaming service helps “open up doors for me (to work with) the type of people who inspire me, and help me tell stories that I want to tell with distinct voices.”
Rao also expressed his gratitude that audiences worldwide will be able to watch ‘The White Tiger’ on the internationally successful streaming platform. “Netflix is one of the biggest platforms we have today, and we know its reach-it’s available in so many countries. There are so many fans of the book, as well as Priyanka and Ramin, that I’m sure many people will watch the film on Netflix,” he noted.
“The story’s themes are also so universal in nature. The film’s set in India, but it talks about things that are so relevant to the times we’re all living in; it talks about the haves and have nots,” the actor also emphasized. “So the story is very inspiring, in that it talks about Balram’s journey from being a nobody to becoming a somebody. Of course, we can’t justify all the actions he takes, but to break the boundaries he faces is inspiring to me.”