Ramin Bahrani wrote and directed the new film “The White Tiger,” about a poor Indian man who becomes a cunning entrepreneur. Bahrani just earned his first Oscar nomination for adapting the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga.
Bahrani recently spoke with Gold Derby’s Rob Licuria about his close friendship with Adiga, how the film was different from those he’s made in the past and what he hopes viewers all over the world will take from “The White Tiger.” Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Talk us through how you came to adapt and then direct Arvind Adiga’s beloved novel and why you wanted to bring it to the screen.
Ramin Bahrani: Yeah, it’s a long journey for me. Arvind Adiga and I are very close friends. We became friends at Columbia University back in the ‘90s. There was a group of us Iranians, Indians, Afghans, Lebanese that connected, and Arvind wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker. So we clicked and we started now, I guess, a 25-year dialogue about movies, books, things I wanted to write, projects he wanted to write, and we started trading scripts and I would get scripts, he would get manuscripts. So I actually got the rough draft of “The White Tiger” in 2004, four years before it was published. An email came to me called “The White Tiger” and it was Arvind’s new manuscript and I was immediately just blown away. If you’ve read the book, it’s very propulsive. It kind of jumps out of your hands as you try to read it. I was drawn to the main character, Balram Halwai. He grew up a poor kid in a village, very talented, very smart, but didn’t have a shot at life due to where he was born and his lot in life. You track his journey as he becomes a successful entrepreneur in India and he’s just so funny and sarcastic and it’s got a satire to the film and you don’t really expect the twists and turns that are coming in his journey. So I waited 15 years to make the film, and I got lucky to finally have that chance.
GD: When you see the film, you realize the key art, which says “Create your fate,” has a real meaning. It really underpins the whole story. It represents a searing rebellion against what might be a rigged system, so to speak, and I found that really compelling and satisfying, breaking out of the rooster coop, so to speak. So talk us through how that theme underpins Balram’s journey.
RB: Yeah, the rooster coop is this great idea from Arvind’s novel. The character’s comparing the servant class, the underclass, the underdogs to roosters that are trapped in a caged coop and when you see a fellow rooster being taken out to be cut up into pieces, to be fed to somebody, the other roosters don’t do anything. They just watch quietly. They never even think that they should rebel or break out of their cages and Balram’s character over the course of the film is going to finally start to realize that servitude is not just done by external forces. It’s also been ingrained in you. It’s a mental servitude, which is somehow even more barbaric.
GD: That never really occurred to me. I mean, I’ve never really considered how that is the fate of millions and millions and millions of people, particularly in that part of the world. When we think about the rooster coop, that particular scene I found also super compelling, the way it was shot, the way it was edited. You do a lot of that in this film. It’s really propulsive, it’s really fast. It never lingers too much on anything in particular. Is that the kind of style of film that you really enjoy bringing to audiences?
RB: It was certainly different for me. I mean, a lot of my films have been a bit more contemplative or slower, but the book was that way and that was the challenge for me. I really wanted to match the tone that Arvind had set in the novel and it was a fast read. You could read it in one day. Its tone was different than anything I had tried before because of the satire, because of the voiceover. It’s a first-person narration, the novel, which obviously presents a lot of challenges in adaptation. It had a weird structure. It was broken in half, the novel. The first half was a bit more fun and playful and then there’s a very tragic event that happens in the middle of a big moment and the second half gets a bit darker in his head. So you’re thinking how are you going to bridge those two parts of the film? Just thinking of other films that get broken in half, like “High and Low” by [Akira] Kurosawa, which I thought also had other interesting parallels or later [Stanley] Kubrick does this, I think by studying Kurosawa probably. Looking at things like “Full Metal Jacket,” both directors pretty inventive with structure, but here it was about trying to bridge the tone of the two sections.
GD: Let’s speak about the tonal shifts because the lead character played by Adarsh Gourav, who we should talk about a little later because I thought he was incredible, is so lovable. You root for him, you’re with him. But then, as you say, without spoiling anything, something happens towards the middle end of the film which is very confronting and you almost feel like you can’t root for someone like this but for some reason, you still do. You want to see him succeed. Talk us through what you’re doing there and how nuanced that journey actually is.
RB: I got lucky we found this incredible actor, Adarsh, and that was a huge gift to the movie because of his talent and skill as a newcomer. So yeah, there was a lot of investment in the script and in the shooting of the film about how to get an audience hooked into him and how to start to layer in that something bad is going to happen. I mean, pretty upfront, I’m telling you this guy is wanted by the police. You just don’t know why. In the novel, Arvind reveals that to you very quickly, but we held back on that information until later. There’s kind of a misdirect at a certain point in the film that you think it’s for some reason that it’s not. He goes on to commit a much more gruesome crime. It was really about trying to chart what were the steps that got him to that moment and how was his mind starting to become unhinged in the pressure and then trying to pull an audience back with him in the end of the film by trying to see how he had changed in a way to be better than his masters.
But that being said, Rob, I have to tell you, I don’t really know if he did the right thing, and I cannot ask an audience to condone his actions. I was really mainly hoping they would empathize and understand him and understand the pressures that lead the character to do what he does. I hope to see that even our own society, I’m in Brooklyn, that maybe it’s not that far away from us either. It was interesting when I came back and I got into editing of the film, COVID started. So the whole editing team was gone. They were all editing at home and I was the only one going into this editing space in Brooklyn alone. You couldn’t have meals with the team anymore. You would just have a meal alone and it was often brought to me by someone on a Seamless app, which I had not used before and every time I’d push this button on my phone, I was commanding a Balram, a servant to come to my door with food. I started to feel that when I got into an Uber, it was also Balram there, this kind of underclass that we started to create in the West of people who serve us. It’s as if our telephones are a directory for servants and we can just push buttons and bring them to do anything we want and need. I’m complicit in that but I think going in that direction is going to lead to more Balrams and potentially more of what we’re seeing in the world right now.
GD: Wow. I had a similar thought as I was watching the film because, yes, during the pandemic, we did rely on a whole bunch of people trying to get some work, bringing us food and delivering our packages and in a certain way, it’s unflinching and it’s uncomfortable and unflattering, but it’s actually quite universal. But let’s talk about India first. Was it challenging to get that right, to get that as authentic as possible?
RB: Arvind’s book was my guide. I’m Iranian American. I lived in Iran as an adult for three years, including spending time in villages like Balram comes from. My dad comes from a village just like that so I’ve been growing up with that my whole life and there’s similarities in the cultures that helped. I only brought two or three people with me from the West, an Italian cinematographer and a production designer from North Carolina that I had worked with before, and an AD, a DGA AD you have to bring, but everyone else with Indian. So my crew was 99 percent Indian, including all the department heads. So that really helped. We could lean on them for authenticity and I spent a few months in India, per Arvind’s suggestion, traveling as much as I could to the locations by bus and by foot to experience it the way Balram would and talking to drivers, talking to a lot of drivers, going to shopping malls and instead of going in them, just going to the parking lots where drivers were there, smoking bidis and waiting for their masters. We started to hear the stories and you start to realize how right Arvind had gotten that in the novel.
GD: The movie hasn’t been out very long. The reviews are really strong and consensus so far seems to be the film is captivating and it’s really propulsive, as you say, which is similar to how the book’s presented and there’s a real confidence and swagger in the way you tell this very sprawling story. So ultimately, I’m wondering, what are you hoping that audience will get out of this experience? Because there’s so much to unpack but ultimately, what do you want them to get out of it?
RB: Thanks for saying that. You hope it’s just an experience. As you said, you hope they’ll go on a wild ride with this character. I hope they’re going to laugh. I hope they’re going to, as you said, be confronted by something challenging in the back half of the film but make them think. It’s just a story about a man who wants to be free. He wants to be free to reach his full potential as a human being and society is not giving him that chance. It’s been rigged against him because of where he was born, what lot he was born into in life. I think this divide between rich and poor or the segregations and mistreatments we have based on race or other factors are something we feel all over the world. Yeah, I hope people might think about that as they go on the journey with Balram.