How Netflix’s ‘The White Tiger’ became a surprise hit

Likely few filmmakers have been in the position of adapting a novel that is in fact dedicated to them. Yet this is exactly the situation Ramin Bahrani found himself in when he tackled “The White Tiger.”

Bahrani and author Aravind Adiga had been friends since both attended Columbia University in the 1990s. Bahrani went on to direct a series of emotionally detailed, deeply humanist films including “Man Push Cart,” “Goodbye Solo” and “99 Homes.” His adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” for HBO earned five Emmy nominations and won a Producers Guild of America award.

Adiga’s debut novel, “The White Tiger” was published in 2008 and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Bahrani, who also now teaches film production at Columbia, was nominated for both a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award and an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of the book.

The movie has been a breakout platform for actor Adarsh Gourav, nominated in the lead actor category at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, the BAFTAs and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

“The White Tiger” takes place in India in both 2007 and 2010. A young man named Balram (Gourav) leaves his small town to work as a driver for a wealthy family in the city of Delhi. He is tasked with assisting the young couple, Pinky and Ashok (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkummar Rao), and grows close to them. Three years later, Balram has refashioned himself as an entrepreneurial businessman, running a taxi service catering to the burgeoning technology sector in Bangalore.

Released worldwide on Netflix on Jan. 22, the film immediately became a breakout for the streaming giant. Chopra Jonas, who also executive produced the project, announced via social media that “The White Tiger” hit number one on the Netflix top 10 in 64 countries, and was projected to be watched by 27 million households in its first four weeks. (Netflix, which is strategic in the viewing figures it releases, counts a “view” as an account that plays at least two minutes of a program.)

Bahrani has previously said that writing is his least favorite part of the filmmaking process, so it is ironic that he received his first Oscar nomination for adapting “The White Tiger” screenplay.

“I say that because I find it to be the hardest part,” said Bahrani during a recent call from New York, having taught a class earlier in the day and finished shooting a television pilot the day before. “Well, the writing of the first draft I find to be the hardest part. I know shooting has its challenges, the production aspects of shooting can become very difficult, but spending time with actors on a set I find really enjoyable. To sit down and write a new script, the blank page does not get any easier. If somebody recognizes you for your work, it’s still the same horror of staring at a page and trying to figure it all out.”

A driver talks to the couple in the back seat of the car.

Adarsh Gourav, left, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao in the movie “The White Tiger.”

(Netflix)

Bahrani recalled a conversation with Bahareh Azimi, with whom he wrote “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart,” and who is an associate producer on “The White Tiger,” in which he expressed how grateful he was that he did not adapt his friend’s novel when it first came out, accumulating more experience as a filmmaker first.

“I remember talking to her, saying, ‘What would this movie have been if we had written an original script?’ If it wasn’t an adaptation, if Aravind just called with an idea about a servant and master. It probably would have been much narrower. And so I think if I made this film when the book came out, which would have been after [2008’s] ‘Goodbye Solo,’ I don’t think I would have even attempted the tone of the novel, the strange twists and turns, the kind of hallucinations the main character has, the great humor the book had.

“I think I would have lost a lot of that because I would not have known how to do it,” Bahrani said. “And, the filmmaking would have also resembled my first films. And so I say in a good way, I’m glad I couldn’t do it then, because I feel that the film I made now and the script that I wrote now are a better reflection of the tone and complexity of the novel. And I think just with age and experience, I was able to get there.”

By the end of the film, audiences have seen Balram suffer all manner of humiliations and overcome immense obstacles. But he is catapulted to success by a difficult and reprehensible choice. It speaks to Bahrani’s adaptation and Gourav’s performance that audiences still leave the film with a sense of understanding for all Balram has been through. He has refashioned himself into a boss, with all the corruption and compromise he had previously seen from his own superiors.

“There’s no easy answer,” said Bahrani. “But It doesn’t mean that you and I have to agree with it as moral behavior. We were unified on this thought that the ending should have a feeling of celebration of this character, even though there’s things underneath him that are totally immoral.

“We assumed that if we could propel the audience into celebrating or empathizing or going with him that when the movie ended and they sat and turned to the person they watched the film with, they would say, ‘That was great. What a journey. Hey, wait a second,’” said Bahrani. “And then the dialogue would begin about what is the nature of the world? What is the nature of morality? What does morality mean when you don’t have enough food to eat? So we were hoping it would start a dialogue.”

“Unethical is a very gentle word to use for what he’s done, but they [audiences] didn’t think Balram was a bad guy, because of the journey that he led,” said Gourav during a recent call from Bombay. “But it’s the moment of breaking out of the coop. It’s the steps that millions of us can’t undertake because of all the fears that we have in our life, because of the family that we need, that you’re responsible for, and Balram overcame that, he was the guy who actually decided to not care about any of that and just go for it and change his life. So I guess people empathize with somebody like that in some way.”

Shooting in India, Bahrani brought production designer Chad Keith and a Directors Guild of America assistant director from the United States and cinematographer Paolo Carnera and Steadicam operator Andrea Grossi from Italy, but otherwise the crew was overwhelmingly local. For Bahrani, who is Iranian-American, it was his first time on a set with so many brown faces.

“It’s kind of cool, you know, it was a very good experience,” he said. “As a filmmaker, it makes you feel different. You turn around and everyone looks like you. It’s somehow superficial but it’s also a good feeling. And it’s a reminder to me and many people that I’ve been having conversations with in the last year here in the States about what does representation mean.”

A smiling man stands before a crowd of men in white buttondown shirts.

Adarsh Gourav as Balram in “The White Tiger.”

(Tejinder Singh Khamkha / Netflix)

In casting Gourav, Bahrani could have gone with a bigger name, either from India or the diaspora, but he decided that it was better for the story to go with a relative unknown.

“Actually, many people have told me, they just think that’s him. That’s just Balram,” said Bahrani. “This is completely a performance. I want to stress this is a trained actor who got a full scholarship to the best acting school in the entire country of India. Everything in the movie is a decision.

“He was just awesome to work with,” the director added. “And had he been a known actor I couldn’t have shot in live environments the way I did with him. They just believe he’s the servant because they don’t know who he is. They’d never met him before. And no one makes movies about servants in India. So they couldn’t believe that he was in a movie. They just thought he was a crazy person in the street. That would’ve never happened if it had been a movie star.”

That admiration goes both ways.

“I feel spoiled as an actor after working with Ramin,” said Gourav. “The kind of clarity that he had with this story, yet the amount of flexibility that he gave his actors to explore it and find it. It was a solid partnership right from the beginning. And I think it takes a lot of confidence for somebody to tell his actors to just go out and explore it and find it.”

Gourav, 26, began acting when he was in his teens but said it was a few years before he started to take it seriously.

“When I started acting as a teenager, I was just acting because acting was something that I’ve never done before,” said Gourav. “Over the years, I’ve become more fond of the craft.”

The acclaim for his performance in “The White Tiger” has already opened doors for him in India, with new projects lining up.

“I think I’m much clearer now about the kind of work I want to do and about the kinds of people I want to work with,” said Gourav, “but of course it’s just the beginning of my journey.”

To prepare for the role, Gourav went to the part of India where Balram is from and got a job working in a small food stall, with his boss unaware of who he really was. This allowed him to not only work on the specifics of a regional accent but also to get a sense of the life his character was so desperate to get away from.

“What that helped me understand was how it feels to do something that you don’t really want to do, how it feels to be stuck in a rut in this situation that you don’t know how to get of,” said Gourav. “But what really made me uncomfortable was the fact that I, as an actor, could get out of it in a few days, not ending up as people who do this for the lifetime.”

Working with Chopra Jonas brought unique challenges as well. She is so famous in India that it was extremely difficult to shoot with her anywhere outdoors. Most of her scenes are either in a car or an interior. A scene of her simply leaving a car to enter a shopping mall took months of planning to execute, while a scene in which her character is involved in a hit-and-run accident was shot on a road near a stadium that could be gated off. (The gate was digitally removed.) If word had spread that she was shooting a movie nearby, there would have been no way to secure the area.

As Bahrani said, “Even if we brought police, the police would not be able to stop the crowds that would come.”

Nevertheless, he’s quick to point out what a generous collaborator Chopra Jonas was and said the two of them are talking about finding another project to work on together.

One addition Bahrani made from the book is a line in the voice-over where Balram says, “Don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.” This purposeful reference to the Academy Award-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” had many layers.

“I assumed Western critics would compare it to ‘Slumdog,’” said Bahrani of his film. “For the record, I think it’s a really interesting film. I think Danny Boyle’s an amazing director. Who else would cast Himesh Patel in the lead of a movie like ‘Yesterday’? It’s not just a comment on the fairy-tale aspect of that film, which is a legitimate form of storytelling. Of course, I don’t see the world that way. My films, from ‘Man Push Cart’ to ‘Chop Shop,’ ‘99 Homes,’ none of them have that kind of ending. It could also be a commentary about any number of other things.”

“I thought it was funny,” said Gourav. “It was supposed to be a joke. I didn’t think there was much to think about it or break it down. But it is true, you do have game shows that change your life, but Balram was saying that it doesn’t happen with everyone.”



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