It was a Chachi 420 situation, Adarsh Gourav, 26, recalls of the time he’d checked himself into a high-end hotel in Saket in South Delhi. In the morning, he’d step out wearing clothes similar to his character Balram Halwai from The White Tiger. At night, he’d go out shopping/socialising to the mall nearby, as Gourav.
Sensing something fishy, sundry hotel staff would follow him to his room, from a distance. “To fuel the suspense,” Gourav had instructed that no housekeeping staff be allowed in.
The night before he checked out, the hotel staff entered his space and were quite “scared” to see chart papers and pictures of Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar lying all over. They were convinced he was a contract killer: “I was just fooling around with them,” Gourav says, revealing a naturally cheeky personality that merges so seamlessly, as he slips into Balram in Ramin Bahrani’s film as well. But what was he really up to, during the day, anyway? Working at a ‘redi’ — a roadside tea/pakoda type stall in the neighbourhood. To get a hang of a person from the underclass, engaged in a menial job — in the existing world that he wants to desperately exit from.
It took Gourav a few days to find this pakoda job, because he’d introduce himself as Balram to his potential masters. And they’d want to see his identity card before hiring.
A Good Samaritan did have him on board, which is how he got “R100 a day, to clean utensils by the gutter, with bandicoots running all over. I was just thinking, what am I doing here? I needed to get the hell out,” Gourav laughs. Which is essentially Balram’s life in his village, before he becomes the driver in the city – both in Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning angry novel, set in Delhi in the late noughties, and the Iranian-American Bahrani’s realistic adaptation, that dropped globally on Netflix on January 22. Gourav also spent a couple of weeks in a village called Charkhari Basti in Jharkhand (where Balram is roughly from), befriending a family — living among them anonymously, to simultaneously relive his character’s backstory: “My biggest high of being an actor is the preparation time. That’s where I have real fun. I got three and half months for Balram!” Gourav is himself from Jamshedpur, the steel township in Jharkhand that, in terms of childhood years, he also shares with Priyanka Chopra, his co-actor and co-producer on White Tiger. In eighth grade, he moved to Mumbai with his parents, given his father’s transferable job.
One of the reasons for this move, he reveals, was his talent for Hindustani classical music. He’s a trained vocalist. His family felt the city would offer him better opportunities to pursue music as a formal career.
It was during his performance at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai that someone from the audience checked if he might be interested in acting. As a teenager, he was “thrilled” at the prospect of being on TV. The gentleman asked him to meet with his portfolio. He came over with passport-sized photos to the casting office, as if applying for an Aadhar card. “They were, like, what are we going to do with this? And so I went to Studio 19 in Juhu, paid Rs 3,000 to get my portfolio shot.” This helped Gourav land his first role on screen, as the younger version of Shah Rukh Khan, in Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan (2010). On each day of his three-day shoot, different members of his family would troop in to the set to gawk, awe-struck by how movies are made — “Karan Johar looks taller in real life” — knowing that this was a one-off opportunity for young Gourav.
Only in 2013, did he take up acting seriously as a profession, circling around Mumbai’s audition sub-culture — testing for parts in ads and films, doing roles of varying lengths.
After several fallow months in 2019, by the time Gourav was finalised for his dream lead debut, with The White Tiger, his co-star Rajkummar Rao knew of him as a talent of sorts from roles in Mom (2017), Rukh (2017) and SRK Jr. “His commitment inspired me a lot,” Rao says, delving on how much of the gritty movie is an outcome of both of them jamming, and the director Bahrani, “taking his actors to a point that they start living in the moment.” The White Tiger opened to rave reviews (especially for Gourav), first in the US, where it had a limited theatrical release, with multiple allusions made to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008). This serves as good omen for an Oscar consideration. “I’d be lying if I told you we hadn’t thought of that [global stage with an Academy nom],” says producer Mukul Deora, who’s had the rights to Adiga’s book for a decade. Adiga’s 2008 book in turn is dedicated to Bahrani himself. They were close friends and room-mates at Columbia University. Between Bahrani, who’s read multiple drafts of the novel, and I — we’ve been with White Tiger for quarter of a century,” Deora says.
To quote a dialogue from the film, White Tiger is basically about how “there are only two castes in India – upper and lower. For the poor, only two ways to get to the top – crime and politics.” As true for Slumdog.
Although if and when Tiger> Slumdog, it’s because Gourav > Dev Patel. Infinitely so. Because Gourav is basically Balram, as he realised off-screen in Delhi, when a mini-truck driver, randomly outside the same Saket hotel, asked him to lift construction material from the boot once, for “Rs 20 chai pani! Having cracked one half of the syllabus (the backstory), the toughest nut, according to Gourav, was playing the Bangalore version of his character, who becomes rich and successful! “I literally played it by the book. In the evenings, at the hotel, I would read multiple textbooks on body language – posture, how to sit, appear confident, be alpha in a room.” Guessing Balram from The White Tiger also would’ve gone through the same unlearning.