Adarsh Gourav: Meet the White Tiger of Bollywood

Following the success of The White Tiger, newcomer Adarsh Gourav finds himself in haloed territory of global award nominations

Published: Feb 17, 2021 01:31:54 PM IST
Updated: Feb 17, 2021 02:41:52 PM IST

aadarsh gourav bgImage Credits: Netflix 

More than a decade after Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, the person featured on its dedication page, Iranian-American film director Ramin Bahrani, ended up helming its cinematic adaptation. And Bahrani had just one instruction for Tess Joseph, the film’s casting director, while scouting for actors: “Show me your best and most real actors”.

The Netflix film The White Tiger released on January 22, with a cast including Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkumar Rao and Adarsh Gourav, and, according to an announcement by Chopra Jonas, became the No 1 film on the platform in 64 countries in the first four weeks, and was viewed by 27 million households.

What it has also done is catapult 26-year-old Gourav, a newcomer in the world of big cinema, into the nomination lists of some of the most prestigious global awards. He has been nominated for the Best International Actor-Cinema of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards, is on the longlist for the Best Leading Actor category of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards, and is the first Indian to be nominated in the Best Male Lead category of the Film Independent Spirits Awards (late Irrfan Khan was nominated for Best Supporting Male Actor for his role in Mira Nair's The Namesake in 2007).

Gourav says it feels surreal to find his name alongside the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks, Gary Oldman and late Chadwick Boseman. But if you ask Joseph, he had shown potential from his very first audition. “Adarsh’s very first audition had promise. He was cheeky yet naïve; he felt like he 'belonged' to the world. He listens, he invests in instructions but also makes brave choices when asked to do a wild take,” she says. “For the film’s voiceover, he was one of the last few actors we had tested, and we were meeting many options. When I uploaded the tapes to Ramin, I left him a note saying 'watch this one. I liked him'."

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Gourav had started acting when he was 13. Auditioning was mostly a weekend activity, and eventually landed him the role of a young Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan's character) in Karan Johar's My Name Is Khan (2013). However, he claims he never thought of being an actor in later years, and that it was only while acting in a film called Banana in Jamshedpur that Gourav was bitten by the acting bug.

“When I played the character of Joyjeet Ganguly [in Banana], I had never before experienced anything like that. It was cathartic for me to get to know another person so intimately—a person that only existed on pages. Bringing that to life was a unique experience. That is when I started enjoying the craft.”

After his family moved from Jamshedpur to Mumbai, Gourav attended Drama School for a year, went to theatre workshops, recorded voiceovers and character dubs, acted in advertisements, web series (Hostel Daze and Leila) and films (Rukh and Mom). “I am very fortunate to be doing this for a living. To be able to make money by telling stories."

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the_white_tiger_00_47_03_08r-bgA still from The White Tiger, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkumar Rao and Adarsh Gourav
Image Credits: Netflix 

In The White Tiger, Balram Halwai leaves his village, which holds no prospects for young people, to join the throngs of subservient domestic workers in the homes of affluent urban families. “Balram is born in a family of have-nots. But at the same time, he is naive and carefree enough to not know the reality of urban life, and how people function when they have more exposure in the world,” says Gourav.

Halwai's life is a study in fear, corruption, and exploitation, and he breaks free of the attachment he feels towards his employers when he realises that he is being made a scapegoat. Gourav had three months to get to know him.

First, he tried getting a driver's job at an affluent Mumbai or Delhi home. “That proved to be very difficult, because who would just randomly keep me as a driver?” He then asked an acquaintance called Akshay Nayak to take him to Chalkari Basti, his village in Jharkhand. “I stayed at his home for close to two weeks, so that I could get a better understanding of Balram's life, how he perceived the city, and how he thought about everything else.” Gourav then moved to Delhi. “I worked at a small food stall in Saket for a couple of weeks, where I was running errands for my seth (employer), washing dishes and keeping the place clean.”

But it was telling Halwai’s story in director Bahrani's style that was like tasting blood for Adarsh. His unconventional ways of directing actors meant he never said “action” or “cut” to indicate the beginning and the end of a shot. “Priyanka, Raj, Vijay Maurya and I love to improvise, and Ramin never told us to stick to the script; it was merely a base. Of course, it was important to say certain lines. But once the scene was over, according to the script, he wouldn't end the scene there. He'd see where it could go. We'd keep improvising until Ramin walked into the frame and we’d be like 'oh, the scene's done’,” recalls Gourav. “It is very inspiring to have worked with Ramin. I know it is not going to be the same with every filmmaker I work with, but I really feel spoilt after working with him because of the amount of freedom he gives actors.”

In a particular scene, Halwai is on the verge of tears because he feels betrayed by the employers he had worshipped until then. His eyes brim with tears, but he doesn’t let a drop escape. “When I am trying to effectively play a different person, who is not Adarsh, it is very important to understand the things that I am doing and to understand the intention; but also to be able to live the life of that person,” says Gourav. “Every character takes a toll on you. You lose something and you gain something out of every person you become.”

He adds that acting is a psycho-physical process that needs to be reversed once the shoot is over. “When you are walking in a certain way for two to three months, you'll realise your walk has changed when you are not on the film sets anymore. Then I have to make a conscious effort to walk like Adarsh, and not Balram. You come back as close to reality as possible... By walking on the streets, by talking to people, by doing the things you'd do when you are not an actor."

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the white tiger_20191024_unit_06302r-bgImage Credits: Netflix

The White Tiger's success has given Gourav more confidence, and he believes it will bring him opportunities to audition for the right roles, read the right scripts, and engage with filmmakers he has always wanted to work with.

Joseph believes this is just the beginning of Gourav’s journey as an actor. As a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she says, “The world has spoken and I echo that: Adarsh has captured the attention of the world and some of the best critics, and [he] stands his own alongside the best actors of 2020.”

The Film Independent Spirit awards, for which Gourav has been nominated in the Best Male Lead category, is considered to be the Oscars for movies made on a budget less than $20 million. Past winners have gone on to win the Oscars for Best Picture. For example, The Artist (2011), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Birdman (2014), Spotlight (2015), and Moonlight (2016).

“I almost don't want to believe it,” says Gourav, referring to the nominations. “But I am hoping that these things give me an opportunity to work with the kind of directors I want to work with. I think any award or any recognition is just a way forward for a storyteller—whether it is an actor, a producer or a writer.”

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