‘A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way- to exist in perpetual servitude. A servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse ‘ Arvind Adiga - The White Tiger.
This jarring truth is uttered by Balram Halwai, the protagonist of Adiga’s book, now a widely acclaimed film on Netflix. Balram who hails from Laxmangarh village is forced to drop out from school and work to help pay his family’s debts. He goes on to get a coveted job as a driver for Ashok, the son of a rich landlord and eventually emancipates himself and realises his dream of becoming an entrepreneur after murdering his master. This is not your typical feel good story. This sordid but strangely empowering tale gripped the imagination of Producer Mukul Deora who nurtured his ambition over several years to bring it to life on screen.
The Booker prize winning novel is now an Oscar and Bafta nominated film in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay by Iranian American Director Ramin Bahrani, a college mate of Adiga who the book is actually dedicated to. Adarsh Gourav who convincingly portrays Balram has also bagged a Bafta nomination in the leading actor category.
We had an illuminating group chat with Mukul Deora and Adarsh Gourav as we all eagerly await the award ceremonies this month, and spoke to them about the trials and triumphs of bringing this ambitious project on the global stage. "Being nominated for the BAFTAs is a great honour, and we are thrilled for Ramin and Adarsh," shared Mukul Deora.
Q: There’s a scene in the film where Ashok - Balram’s boss, tells him– You’re the New India, to which he replies ‘I am the New India Sir’. How are you both representative of the New India as far as the film industry is concerned?
Adarsh: This is a great time to be around for anyone creative. Digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon and domestic platforms have opened up so many new doors of opportunities for us. The kind of work that is happening is a lot braver and more experimental. People are willing to take risks. We now don’t have to worry about box office numbers as such. We have to worry about our own craft and focus on that. We have to be confident of who we are and push ourselves and then hope for the best to happen. I am thankful and fortunate that I am around at this point in time and just want to make the most use of it and work with directors and writers who inspire me and be part of stories that are unique and engaging. The new India that we represent is exactly the new India that Balram represents where you dare to dream and you have the resources and opportunities to realise them.
Mukul: This is a movie about a driver killing his master. Last year there was Parasite, before that Roma. Why are these stories about uncomfortable truths being made all over the world and are successful? Not just in India. Because of streamers (Netflix, Amazon) and new forms of media, there is a realisation that there was always a hunger for these stories amongst audiences. I always wanted to hear amazing, true, compelling stories, but because of the system that was there with marketing budgets being so high, and a winner takes all mentality, it was hard for 90 percent of these movies to break through and to get financed. Now because they are easily viewed by anyone on phones, etc, the audience is lapping it up over the world. White Tiger was number 1 in 61 countries. It’s an amazing story. It really resonated with me.
Adarsh you mentioned wanting to work with directors and actors who inspire, can you name a few?
There are so many. To name a few, amongst actors there’s Manoj Bajpai, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajpal Yadav , Naseeruddin Shah, Radhika Apte, Tillotama Shome they are all wonderful actors. Amongst western actors I am inspired by Anthony Hopkins, Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day -Lewis. Amongst directors I’d love to work with Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Devashish Makhija, Vikramaditya Motwane.
Mukul, what resonated most with you about this story? Why did you nurture the project for so many years?
It’s a story about freedom…a man wanting to be free. Everyone has something to break free from for growth, something financial, societal etc.
If you look at many of the good movies that have been made and are successful, they have taken many years. For example Life of Pi. The challenge for me as an Indian filmmaker living in India was that how do I make this story a global sensation. I spent a lot of time in LA and worked really hard. I wanted the world to take notice. I wanted to break into the international sphere of filmmaking – that was a clear goal of mine. I decided it wouldn’t be an Indian movie and I wanted someone who would bring a global sensitivity. With Ramin Bahrani it was a true collaboration. I remember he said that I read a book better than anyone else. Ramin had actually read drafts of the book before it was published. It was an amazing coincidence and amazing collaboration.
In the White Tiger, the poor of India are compared to Roosters in a coop, but as you said Mukul, everyone has something to break free from. What did the two of you have to break free from?
Mukul: I think we are always breaking free. You have to break free from yourself ultimately.
Adarsh: Fears that all of us have that’s what I want to break all the time. Everything that I fear doing I want to do even more so I feel I have conquered them. I have terrible stage fright even now, I am afraid of talking to a large gathering of people.
Adarsh you really immersed yourself in the role to get into Balram’s skin. Can you tell us about your preparation process?
Adarsh: It’s important for me to live the kind of life as much as possible as the person. It’s not just about learning lines and saying them out aloud. That doesn’t make sense. We are calling ourselves actors, not mimicking anybody, we are acting out their lives and in order to do that we have to experience it.
I wanted to be a driver for someone in Bombay or Delhi. That was difficult – why would anyone hire me, I didn’t have prior driving experience? The next best thing was go to a village and understand where Balram is coming from. I bumped into a guy Akshay Naik who stayed next to my building. I made friends with him and convinced him to take me to his village in Jharkand. I said please don’t tell anyone I am an actor. I wanted an unbiased experience. I stayed there for 15 days, met his friends and family, they took such amazing care of me. So loving. I fell sick on the second day – had food poisoning and high fever. But I recovered. He took me to all these spots where he would go as a teenager, hideout spots, a dam that he would go to and a hydroelectric project next to his house. We were like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
I then came to Delhi and I wanted to feel what Balram did when he worked in a tea stall. He didn’t belong there and wanted to get out. On the third day I managed to find a job without showing my ID card. I was applying as Balram not Adarsh. It was a thela where they served Roti, Sabzi, Dal. I was cleaning the plates and keeping the place clean and running errands. I did that for a couple of weeks. I understand what Balram must have felt like. Suddenly how people see you and treat you differently based on the clothes you wear and how you talk. The idea was to become invisible. It was humbling and uncomfortable. When I realised I could do it for 15 days and get away with it and return to my life as an actor I felt even more disturbed. People do this for their entire life. Suddenly, I became so much more aware of privileges I had since I was a child. If I wanted a toy my parents would get it for me. I didn’t have to break coal like Balram.
Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra | SINGH TEJINDER / Netflix
Did any incident stand out for you during this time?
Adarsh: After I left my job at the thela I was walking back to my hotel and a man was driving his lorry and transporting construction rods. He stopped his car, he was taking out the rods and I was crossing him and he called out to me. I didn’t even make eye contact with him, and he said uthane ko madad karo beta. At that moment I was convinced that now I am Balram. I helped him and he gave me Rs 20. I still have it in my pocket.
It’s a story about how people on the margins of society are treated. Has it had any impact on your personal perspective?
Adarsh: People who come from privilege should be cognizant of that. And be aware and treat people right. If you speak nicely to people or give a little extra money to someone it’s not going to do you any harm.
Mukul: Some people have called after seeing the movie.. like my friend’s mother. She said she couldn’t sleep. She said I am a good person, I take care of my staff – but we can do so much more. I am happy that someone has that reaction.
Mukul knew the book by heart, says Director Ramin Bahrani
He (Mukul) is an incredible partner and a wonderful man. Also an established musician in India, an artist, which really helped us click right away. We worked very closely for three years together to make the film. He loved the book more than anyone else I had met – he knew it by heart really, line by line – and understood it deeply.
We agreed right away on the tone we were searching for, as close to Aravind’s novel as we could find. We had endless WhatsApp phone calls from Mumbai to Brooklyn going over the drafts together until I arrived in India for research. Mukul was also brilliant at inspiring everyone on set and ensuring we were mindful of cultural nuances.