Since it dropped on Netflix on January 22 this year, critics and fans have either been extravagant with praise for The White Tiger or underwhelmed by the film. However, one thing we all agree with is lead actor Adarsh Gourav’s breakout performance as Balram Halwai.
The White Tiger is adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga and his role has already earned Gourav a nomination in the Best Actor category at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as making it to the long list of BAFTA nominations for best actor, along with international stars such as Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes.
The 26-year-old, who was earlier seen as Dhruv in ‘Rukh’ (2017), Mohit in ‘Mom’ (2017) and Naz in ‘Leila’ (2019), said he is overwhelmed by the reactions, not in the least because the accolades are coming in so early in his career. He also gets a bit coy when you mention that he’s nominated alongside Hanks whose ‘Forrest Gump’ happens to be Gourav’s favourite film.
Gourav was without work for five months, auditioning, hustling, watching films, reading, and trying to stave off self-doubt. “I called people to ask if they have any work for me -- character dubbing, advertisements, even helping writer friends with their scripts. I just wanted to be busy and working. Those five months in 2019 were testing, but I am glad I hung on,” said Gourav over a video call from his Mumbai home.
Patience paid off and the Jamshedpur-born actor-musician landed an audition and the part in The White Tiger, co-starring Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra and Mahesh Manjrekar. He committed himself completely to transforming into Balram, a village boy with ambition who becomes a driver before catapulting to entrepreneurial success. Adiga’s book and the film explore themes such as caste, class, social mobility, corruption and liberty.
“If I am playing Balram, then I am Balram,” he told me. For this, he anonymously spent two weeks in a village in Jharkhand and then worked in a food (puri) stall in Delhi, where he would clean tables and wash dishes. He went by the name of Balram, wore similar clothes to his onscreen character and lived his role.
“It is important for me to live the life of that character as closely as possible, to go through a process by which the body and mind align to become that person, in this case Balram,” he said.
The food stall owner would have had no idea that his employee ‘Balram’ was about to become an international star. Gourav does not know the stall owner’s name either, but the family that hosted him in Chalkari, Jharkhand – his friend Akshay and his elder brother Vishal – are “very happy and proud” of the young actor’s success.
I am struck by Gourav’s composure in spite of the effusive reactions and nominations where his work has upstaged that of far more experienced and accomplished co-stars. “I didn’t expect this,” he confessed, adding, “But I am playing Balram Halwai and anyone playing that character would be talked about more. Also it is a film based on a Booker Prize-winning novel with Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra in it, so naturally a large number of people would watch it. I don’t think anybody can anticipate how a film will be received. All you can do is enjoy the process and work with honesty,” he said.
THE WHITE TIGER - Adarsh Gourav (Balram) in THE WHITE TIGER. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020
There was one scene in which he questioned his own integrity and truth. “It’s the scene where I pull my pants down, sit in front of this guy and laugh. I wish we had more time to do that scene. Because I was pampered with time on other scenes, I felt this one was rushed. I was not satisfied with it and felt low, thinking I lost the chance to really perform. I wanted to reshoot it but Ramin (Bahrani, director) reassured me that it was fine. Then when I saw the film in its entirety, I didn’t think the scene was coming from a place of truth.”
This taught Gourav an important lesson. “I realised that even though you may not have been 100 percent present in a scene, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on screen when you view it in flow of the complete narrative.”
The acting nominations feel “unreal, like a dream,” he admitted. “But I like to live in the present and think of more realistic things rather than speculating. Having said that, the best part of being nominated — besides the trophy — is the way it empowers you and the reach it gives you. With my work being recognised, I now have a chance to speak to the people I have always wanted to reach,” said Gourav.
The audition calls and overtures from interested filmmakers have begun, from both India and abroad. The months of rejection taught him patience and while he has finished shooting a short film written and directed by Varun Grover, he’s prepared to take his time before honing in on his next assignment.
Rejection, he said, is a part of an actor’s life, at least initially. “It also hardens you and teaches you to be patient. But it can also be a little dark because you start doubting yourself. I have had such low phases. I still do have self-doubt and am low on self-confidence. Constant rejection is worse, therefore it is important to have people around you who support you, but also offer constructive feedback.”
Gourav maybe taking his time identifying the role that most resonates with him. Maybe more nominations and shortlists are to follow. He is also keen to widen his net – to sing playback, to act in Tamil, Telugu (which he speaks) and Malayalam films, to work in India and in the West. His Twitter bio describes him as ‘Mostly an actor…Occasionally a Crow…Currently The White Tiger.
If he had to pick his animal spirit, it would “probably be an ant,” he said, because like Gourav, ants are slow, steady and constantly hustling.