Ramin Bahrani: speaking for the underdog

Focussing yet again on minority struggles, the Iranian-American director talks to ‘The Hindu Weekend’ about filming a friend’s story and why ‘The White Tiger’ resonates today

Updated - January 22, 2021 03:51 pm IST

Published - January 22, 2021 01:19 pm IST

Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani

Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani has a thing for the underdog. An immersion into his filmography is to view the lives of the marginalised with an unusually keen eye. His first film, Man Push Cart (2005), follows a former Pakistani rock star selling doughnuts and coffee on the streets of New York. In Chop Shop (2007), a Latino orphan scrounges for money to buy a food truck. In his other films, too, this pattern is distinctly recognisable: the lives he limns are dark yet smattered with a curious yearning for hope, by dreams that appear distant but are not wholly unreasonable.

Given Bahrani’s almost Ken Loach-like oeuvre, it is unsurprising that the Netflix adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger (2008), should have come to him. However, in this case, it was not merely a happy crossing of paths between producer and director. In a storyline reminiscent of an epic novel of destiny, Bahrani’s name was, quite literally, written into The White Tiger on its dedication page.

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When we meet in December 2019, only a few days of shoot remain. Bahrani looks tired but content, his spectacles and stubble lending a professorial air. Predictably, we begin by talking about Adiga and the book. “We went to college together [sometime in the 90s, at Columbia University in New York] and became friends,” he says. “He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He is wickedly funny, with a talent for seeing the world in ways others just don’t. We talk a lot about novels and movies. In fact, he’s always the first person to read all my scripts.”

In a recent interview with FT , Adiga recounted his side of this tale. On the side of the economically-excluded, and united by the power of stories, each had planned to bring these two elements together. Bahrani got there first, releasing his first feature, said Adiga, adding that his friend’s “entrepreneurial zeal” became his blueprint. “When Ramin made Man Push Cart , he launched two careers, his and mine,” he shared.

Bahrani and Adarsh Gourav on set

Bahrani and Adarsh Gourav on set

Exploring the dark

Years before The White Tiger found itself on bestseller lists across the world (it has sold over four million copies), Bahrani found himself reading its early drafts. By the time it was released, the only person who knew the characters and the story better was the author. In fact, Bahrani’s grasp of the narrative found admirers in his two lead actors as well.

When I speak with Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao — bravely holding forth despite the biting Delhi cold and a series of interview sessions — they concur that Bahrani was probably the best suited to tell the remarkable story of Balram Halwai (played by Adarsh Gourav), the droll, sarcastic, cynical narrator who rises from crippling poverty to become an entrepreneur. On his way up, he becomes chauffeur to Ashok (Rao) and Pinky Madam (Chopra), a wealthy couple for whom corruption is a way of life.

Chopra says the book touched her the time she read it a decade ago. “When my agents told me it was being made, I actively pursued it. I want to get behind stories that come out of India and have the ability to resonate with people across the world,” says the actor, who auditioned remotely for the role, from her small home studio. “What excites me is that it is thought provoking, dark yet funny, and makes one sit back and say, ‘Well, this does happen. What are we going to about it?’”

Rao agrees. “That is how humans are; they are surprising and do things we don’t expect them to do. As an actor, that was fascinating. Sometimes we get into these dark areas that make us bend our ways. It is the most exciting part, knowing there are multiple paths to our lives,” he says.

Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in a still from ‘The White Tiger’

Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in a still from ‘The White Tiger’

Research and ₹100

Both of them admire how Bahrani has chosen to tell the story. Chopra feels the director’s heritage as well as his strong sense of justice informs his lens. “He has the dual perspective of having seen the developing world as well as America, and he’s good friends with Aravind. He’s as close to it as it can get. And his perspective is something I don’t think we’d have seen elsewhere,” she says.

However, despite Bahrani’s closeness to the story, he didn’t take it easy. Even before filming started, he chose to spend months in India, riding local buses and visiting the places Adiga had written about, even those that did not make it into the script. He also met scores of people — from families in upscale apartment colonies in Gurugram to drivers at garages in Delhi. His research closely mirrors that of Adarsh Gourav, the talented young actor who plays Balram. In an interview with Rediff, Gourav recounts preparing for the role by living anonymously in a remote village in Jharkhand and working for ₹100 a day with a street food vendor, washing plates for 12 hours a day.

There are elements of the book, however, that are arguably difficult to translate on to the screen. The internal life of the protagonist, for instance. Bahrani overcame the challenge through the classic voice-over. “Whether it is being used by François Truffaut in Jules and Jim [1962] or Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas [1990], showcasing dark humour or a demented mind through voice-over opens up possibilities,” he says. “The words may say something and the images something else, so we’d have an unreliable narrator. That is, of course, exciting and attractive.”

Adarsh Gourav in a still from ‘The White Tiger’

Adarsh Gourav in a still from ‘The White Tiger’

A tale of the times?

While Bahrani added and deleted a few sequences and adapted the character for the screen, the story stays largely faithful to the novel. “The hardest part was cutting things out, since I love the book so much. But when I put all of it in the script, it came to 200 pages! Aravind gave me a wealth of gold and cutting it is just not easy,” he says.

Initially, he considered updating the story (set in 2005) to a more recent setting, before abandoning the idea. “It is a period film. One of the biggest changes today is that thing in your hand, the supercomputer. In today’s world, Balram wouldn’t be writing emails, he’d probably be doing video or Instagram,” he says, adding, “This is only the second time in my life that I’ve adapted a book and I wanted to stick to it.”

In a curious paradox of circumstances, Bahrani’s The White Tiger is releasing at a time of global distress and its story has taken on renewed significance. As Bahrani shared with FT , “With Covid, the inequality was right there. Visible. Inescapable. And Balram is inequality personified. He’s the delivery person bringing your meal, your Uber driver, the healthcare worker who couldn’t afford healthcare themselves.” Chopra echoes this, stating that though India may have made unsteady progress in the years since 2005, there is a long way to go still. “The story of Balram will be relevant for a very long time, until we eradicate poverty, the vicious cycle of hunger, and the lack of education opportunities for the young men and women of this country,” she concludes.

Streaming now on Netflix.

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