Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger
Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning The White Tiger has been one of the most keenly anticipated movies of recent months. Released on Netflix on January 13th, the film is already being talked about as an Academy Award contender. A classic rags-to-riches story with a brutal twist, The White Tiger tells of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) as he tries to sneak out of the life of impoverishment that he has been born into. His ticket out of the rural town Laxmangarh and to Delhi is provided when he overhears that the extortionist landlord, ‘The Stork’ (Mahesh Manjrekar), is looking for a driver for his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Ashok and Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) are a recently returned-from-America couple. They bring with them ideas of empowerment and change. They believe that they are better than Ashok’s slave-driving family. As the movie charges to a rather bloody end, viewers will see how hollow these ideas of ‘equality’ between ‘servant’ and ‘master’ ring. The White Tiger is a film about poverty and opportunity, oppression and injustice. While the weakest parts of the movie feel like ‘India Life 101 for Foreign Audience’, the strongest parts remind one of Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller Parasite. Produced by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the movie has much of its weight carried by Adarsh Gourav who expertly plays the role of a servile driver transforming into masterful entrepreneur. Excerpts from an interview:
Priyanka, what was the process of developing The White Tiger? How did this project come your way?
This book had come out at the turn of the millennium. It’s based in around 2005 so it’s a different India than the India that exists now, first of all. Second, this book won the Man Booker Prize. It was a New York Times bestseller. It was very well received outside of India actually, tremendously, a lot more than in the country, but it was very well received within India as well. It was talked about in literary circles and I remember reading about it at that time. And when I was in [Los Angeles] one morning, I was having breakfast and I was looking through Twitter and I saw on one of the trade magazines that The White Tiger is being made into a movie by Netflix and I called my agents and I said that I want to offer my services because I really love this book and I really feel like I want to bring South Asian stories to the fore. And novelists from great countries, they’ve always had the ability to engage in difficult conversations which have self-reflection. Through their novels and through their fictional work, you come to know inherent tensions that a region might have and that’s what Aravind Adiga did with this book. He took material and fictionalised it. But he also gave you a mirror for self-examination about inherent issues that exist all over the world. The class disparity exists all over the world. This story happens to be based in India. But any country, that you’ve been to, people are born rich, people are born poor, and their destinies are decided based on what—where their birth was and what their birthright is. This is the story of a man who is trying to change that, desperately. I think that’s such a prevalent story to anyone. I ran after the movie. I—my agents—called Netflix, they called the producers. I met Ramin in three parts of the world. I met him in Mumbai, I met him in New York, I met him in London. I said,‘I want to do this movie. I want to do this role. I want to be a producer on it. Please, please, please.’ And it worked out.
What are your thoughts on India’s class system and inequality?
Wow, you’ve asked the question most privileged people ask because we have the ability to ask that question. I have travelled around the world and seen people living in circumstances that are just unbelievable and unfathomable.But, you and I, we have the ability to sit in our comfortable homes with a roof over our head and a warm meal every day and we look at that life and we look at it from such a bird’s eye perspective but it’s their reality and that exists because the divide between the affluent and the poor is only increasing. And we as modern society need to find solutions and that as an entertainer, as a filmmaker that’s not something you and I can solve. We can only create content that’ll bring those debates to the fore and we’re going to get people talking, like you and I are talking. Hopefully that’ll lend itself to change but global poverty is a huge problem and it’s something that we don’t even discuss in the larger scheme of things. We have extreme poverty specifically which is people living under a dollar a day. It’s going to require large amounts of donations from the richest people in the world to be able to change that and, you know, everyone’s working. I work with Global Citizen which is an incredible foundation that works towards exactly this, eradicating global poverty but, you know, as a filmmaker the only thing I can do is align myself with storytelling that actually creates a thought-provoking conversation. But how it’s happening in modern society, that’s a really, really large question.
‘As a filmmaker the only thing I can do is align myself with storytelling that actually creates a thought-provoking conversation,’ says Priyanka Chopra Jonas, actor
Share this on
You are in London. What has the quarantine been like for you?
I was really grateful to have my family with me, otherwise it would have been really sad not being able to be with the people we love, and I’m finding strength in the fact that I’m not alone in feeling like this. The one thing I definitely learned through quarantine was I wasn’t in touch with my friends and family as much as I started to do when I was in quarantine and that’s a habit that I want to keep maintaining.
I worked through the quarantine. I finished my book.
ADARSH, The White Tiger chronicles the life of a poor Indian man who makes a living working in tea shops, cleaning dishes and doing other menial jobs. How did you develop this character?
I started preparing for the part in July 2019. One of the first things that I did was I went to Jharkhand. And how I went there was by befriending this guy who used to stay next to my building. And I told him I was preparing for a film and I told him it would be incredibly helpful for me to go stay in a village and if he would be kind enough to invite me to his house. And this was the third time I was meeting the guy, so he was a little taken aback by my proposal. He said,‘I barely know you.’ But we connected on a few things and he agreed to take me to his village and I spent a couple of weeks there. And all I told him was not to share with anybody that I’m an actor. I wanted to stay anonymous and have a very undiluted, unbiased experience as a person. And I interacted with the people there, got to know what they think about life in general and about what they think about people from the city. From there I went to Delhi and I worked at a small foodstore where I was helping the guy clean the place and clean the floor. And I used to work for 12 hours a day. I worked for two weeks over there and got paid Rs 100 a day. It was an incredibly humbling experience for me, it just made me very aware and sort of filled me with a new sort of appreciation for people like Balram and at the same time just put me in such massive discomfort. I thought it was very important for me to understand Balram’s world. Balram was stuck in this place where he did not belong because he knew he was meant for better things. So part of the reason why I worked in that store was to understand that feeling of entrapment when you have to do something in spite of not wanting to do that. So there were moments in the day when I’d be cleaning the place and I’d be thinking to myself,‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Then I’d be like, this is exactly what Balram would have thought. And I continued working there for a few weeks and then we started with our script-reading sessions. That was part of my preparation.
How do you compare yourself to an animal as unique as the white tiger?
Oh, in terms of feeling unique about myself as an individual? Yeah, you know, I come from a family where both my parents worked for a bank and my brother worked for a bank as well and I was always a creatively inclined child. I learned Indian classical music while growing up and I wanted to be a singer for the longest time. And acting happened accidentally for me, it was never part of the plan. So, I definitely believe that I wasn’t cut out for a regular job where I would go to an office and work a nine-to-five shift. I always wanted to work in a space which allowed me to express my creativity. I didn’t know it would be acting and I just found my groove with acting as a 17-18-year-old while I was preparing for a film and it just made me realise that the process of working on a character is the most gratifying and the most stimulating experience that I’d ever had. So, I think it was around that time that I consciously made that choice of pursuing acting.Later on, I went to drama school as well and trained as an actor.
‘To prepare for the role, I worked for two weeks at a food store in Delhi and got paid Rs 100 a day. It was an incredibly humbling experience,’ says Adarsh Gourav, actor
Share this on
What do you think about the oppression of the poor in India?
Well, I think it’s not prevalent only in India. It’s there in a lot of the world. It’s probably written more about in India. I think it just comes from the fact that there will always be somebody who’s more powerful than that, more powerful than you. And some countries have managed to get over their economic divide faster than us. And India is also catching up. India also has a very, very significant middle class now, and people who have a higher disposable income. So, it would be wrong to say that India is what it used to be many years ago. Which is exactly what even Aravind Adiga talks about in his book. It’s recognised that the 21st century; ‘It’s the century of the brown man and the yellow man, God save everyone else.’ And he talks about India being the next superpower. I think India is taking the right steps in the right direction. I definitely see a huge change from previous years and the India of today, and personally I’m very proud of it.