Behind the 25-Year Friendship That Gave Birth to Netflix’s The White Tiger

The White Tiger. Photo: Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix

Imagine having to make a movie out of a book that was actually dedicated to you. Ramin Bahrani became one of American independent cinema’s foremost names about 15 years ago with stark, poetic independent efforts like Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), and Goodbye Solo (2009). His latest feature, The White Tiger based on the Booker Prize–winning 2008 novel by Indian author Aravind Adiga and starring Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, and Priyanka Chopra — seemed like an unlikely effort at first, with its expansive story line and heightened, almost satirical narrative style. But it turned out to be quite a personal project.

Bahrani (who was recently nominated for a WGA Award for his screenplay) had an instrumental role in the book’s coming to fruition; he and Adiga have been friends ever since their days as undergraduates at Columbia University and regularly read each other’s screenplays and manuscripts. It’s a collaboration that is set to continue: Netflix just announced that Bahrani will next direct a film adaptation of Adiga’s 2020 novel, Amnesty. Here, the two friends got together over the phone to talk about their early years, their influences, the unique challenges of a story like The White Tiger, and the movies they like to disagree on.

How did you two first meet?
Ramin Bahrani: We met in college at Columbia University. We were both there as undergraduates and had a lot of mutual friends, Indian and Iranian friends that had found one another.

Aravind Adiga: I was a foreign student, so my friends tended to be other foreigners, especially from the Middle East. There were a lot of Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian American students at Columbia in the ’90s. I graduated in ’97, and Ramin graduated a year earlier so we knew each other through ’94 and ’95. His interest in cinema and literature established him as someone I wanted to spend time with because I didn’t know much about cinema. I remember the way he would talk about Martin Scorsese’s films really made me understand that cinema was an important art form.

Bahrani: Aravind was thinking of becoming a writer. I was thinking of becoming a filmmaker. We had a lot of discussions and talks about books, movies. Sometimes we would see films together and then, after we graduated, the conversations continued. I think it’s been over a 20-year dialogue, really. He’s always read my scripts, given feedback on projects I’m considering. Sometimes Aravind sends me manuscripts and I, along with many other people, give feedback and notes.

Adiga: When Ramin made Man Push Cart, he launched two careers — his own and mine as well. By that stage, I had moved back to India. I’d been thinking of writing a novel for over a decade. I procrastinate and daydream a fair amount. Ramin’s extraordinary achievement, his making this film on his own, not just writing the script and finding the actors and making the film but also gathering the money — these were herculean tasks that he pulled off on his own. I thought, If he can make a film, I can certainly write a novel.

Was that why you dedicated White Tiger to him?
Adiga: Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t have ever written a book if not for Ramin’s encouragement over something like 15 years before that. It wasn’t just me, by the way — there were many people we knew at Columbia whom Ramin was guiding. He was competitive, but he didn’t feel threatened by the presence of other creative people around him. This was something new for me because my background and my natural inclination towards paranoia had always made me feel that if someone else was doing well, that was a threat to me. I’ve often said that in India, the dominant artistic school is the “Five-Prong” theory, which states that there are just five reviews that Indian writers or filmmakers are going to get in places like The Guardian, in The New Yorker, New York Times. If someone else gets one of them, that just means one less review for you. Ramin doesn’t subscribe to the Five-Prong theory of life. That was very important to me.

I don’t come from an artistic family or an artistic background. I grew up in a small town in the south of India. I didn’t know any writers, painters, artists. I was raised in this very conventional upbringing where I had to play by the rules because that was how you lived in India in the 1980s under a very strict socialist state economy. You survived by doing exactly the same things that your father and mother had done. My family were middle class and professional. The idea was that I would become a doctor as my father was.

I was always very hesitant about actually setting out and taking a giant risk. It was a financial risk to give up a job, to give up a career. Initially, I wanted to be an academic. After Columbia, I went to Oxford and studied English literature. I knew that wasn’t really what I wanted to continue with. I got into a Ph.D. program at Princeton after that — this was in 1999 — and I quit because I thought I really wanted to write a book. But I was still uncertain about how I would fund my ambition. So I became a journalist, and I went back to India. Without Ramin, I don’t know if I would have ever taken the step of quitting [that journalism] job, which I did in 2006. It was quite a gamble.

Bahrani: In terms of the artists and thinkers I know and encounter, Aravind is on a totally different level. There’s a real freedom in his work that I keep trying to find in mine. That was one of the joys of making The White Tiger. The book is so entertaining when you read it. Despite the heavy themes, the way he wrote it was so quick, playful, satirical. And then the way [the protagonist] Balram’s mind becomes unhinged in the second half — I mean, I didn’t know how to film any of that. There was something exciting about pursuing that challenge of trying new styles, new techniques. People who know me know fun is not really a word in my vocabulary. But honestly, I had the most fun making this.

Aravind Adiga and Ramin Bahrani in their college years. Photo: Ramin Bahrani

Can you talk a bit more about developing that new kind of style?
Bahrani: I knew that the script had to have voice-over because it’s a first-person novel, and Balram’s voice was so electric and so funny that there was no way I was going to lose that. I had only done voice-over in one short film I did, Plastic Bag, with Werner Herzog voicing a plastic bag on an existential journey. So it was going back and looking at films like Kind Hearts and Coronets or Fight Club, which I thought was interesting because the voice-over is not just about the hero’s journey but also his commentary on the social world around him, and the character starts to become more unhinged in a way as the story progresses. And then Scorsese: Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street, those really helped in the voice-over. Goodfellas was interesting because it’s an epic story. It does go from childhood to the main section of the film and then that last electric 30 minutes, where it’s all in one day.

White Tiger is around two hours and has probably 70 more scenes than most of my feature films. How do you construct those? With cinematographer Paolo Carnera, who shot the series Gomorrah, we also looked at Dekalog: One and Five. If you look at the lens selection in those films and where [director Krzysztof Kieślowski] puts the cameras in relationship to the actor and the landscape, I thought it would be really helpful to get into Balram’s head, especially in the second half.

The film really does seem to shift styles as it goes along, particularly in the second half.
Bahrani: The novel and the movie both take you on a wild, long, epic journey: You’re in childhood, you’re in a rich villa, you’re in Delhi and then you’re in Bangalore. How do we make each of those look different? The village was predominantly handheld. Even if there was a tracking shot, it was on a dolly handheld. It had a 16mm grain to it. It’s dusty looking, as the village really was. The section when he’s in that rich villa, it was a bit more composed, with wider frames. We were trying to capture a lush look that was new for him.

And then Delhi was so much about upstairs, downstairs — the look of that rich apartment way up high and that rich, gaudy look. With the designer, Chad Keith, who’d done Goodbye Solo with me in North Carolina, we looked at a lot of design magazines for furniture and wallpaper and whatnot from India and also from the Middle East, just looking at what the rich people buy and getting some of those purples and golds. And then in the basement, it was a different look — like the neon lights you would find in [Wong Kar-wai’s] Fallen Angels. It’s not just dark but a little strange and off-kilter down there. Then in Bangalore, how do we make that look like the future? That’s one of the only glass buildings in our film. There’s a lot of Steadicam because he’s confident and in charge now. The camera exudes that confidence that he has.

This is obviously a much bigger production than your earlier films, but it seems like there were times when you took the camera out into the streets without closing them down, much as you did on Man Push Cart.
Bahrani: Definitely. The sequence, for example, when Balram has been betrayed by his employers, he wanders through Old Delhi near the train station. He’s accosted by an old beggar woman. It’s a scene out of the novel that the actor took in a whole other direction. He would always tell me that he wanted to try something, and he would start to tell me what he wanted to try. I’d say, “Don’t tell me, just do it! My cinematographer and the operator, they’ll let you do whatever you want.”

That was a crowded, hectic environment, and people didn’t pay much attention to him because he’s not a famous actor. He was dressed like a driver — that uniform he’s wearing, a pale-blue shirt and those trousers, that’s what a lot of drivers or servants wear — so we just got rid of the crew. It was just the camera and all those people in the scene who are staring at him and wondering what’s going on. And he pulled the whole street into the scene somehow.

Adarsh Gourav, who plays Balram, is stunning. How did you find him?
Bahrani: I wanted the cast to be Indian and from India. There were some awesome diaspora actors that I loved and wanted to work with, and they were interested because of Aravind’s book. But I really wanted the cast to be local. For the lead, I was hoping I would find someone who was a newcomer. When Adarsh first walked in the door, I liked his energy and his look. He was really impressive in that first audition. Then I found out that he came from a smaller town and a very middle-class family. And he was a trained actor and had gotten a full scholarship to the best acting school in India. He had done some supporting roles, and a short film for Anurag Kashyap.

If I like an actor in an audition, I’ll read with them, and I’ll go wildly off script just to see what they’ll do with improvisation. Anything I improvised, no matter how strange or unpredictable, he would go with it but with some intent. He always looks like he’s thinking. And there’s something charming about his smile; it feels sincere. He pulled you in, but with the flip of a switch, he could look like he was one step ahead of you. He imbued both qualities that I thought were needed for the character.

He has almost a silent-movie-actor quality.
Bahrani: I like this scene very much where he counts the balconies with his finger when they reach Delhi because he’s amazed by how tall the building is. I showed the film to my parents, and my dad said, “I did that!” My dad comes from a small village [in Iran] very similar to where Balram came from. During the village sequence, he was already saying that: “That’s my school. That was how I grew up, with animals right where you live.”

I also want to mention the other actors. Rajkummar Rao is a huge star in India. And he has done a great mix of, let’s say, larger Bollywood films — bigger, broader films for mass appeal — and then these awesome independent films, like Newton or CityLights or Shahid, where he’s displaying a completely different muscle as an actor. And then Priyanka Chopra is just a phenomenon and widely respected as a huge talent. I think her career right now is really moving in an amazing direction, and she’s working with a lot of directors now in the West. She has said publicly that she advocated to get this part. She was a huge fan of the novel; she saw it as an important book and wanted to be a part of the film. She had seen some of my films and liked them, and she was just so impressive in the audition. Her instincts were so good. All three actors honestly made the parts better than what I wrote. I think you can feel it in the movie that they liked each other.

In the novel, everybody is seen through Balram’s eyes. In the film, it seems we get a bit more of a sense of them as people. How do you achieve that while remaining so faithful to the story?
Bahrani: The novel is doing something that either I can’t or I don’t know how to do. The story is seen from Balram’s perspective, and the other characters are just what he imagines them to be. And when you’re making the movie, those other characters have to have their own motivation, their own direction — they’re the heroes in their own movie, right? That meant I had to bring other things to the actors that don’t relate to how Balram imagined them. And then the actors, when they got onboard, started to add and subtract and make it more specific to who they were and how they imagined it.

That’s also important to talk about: A lot of the ideas in the film are being told to us by Balram. Those are his thoughts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Aravind or I think that is what this world is. That’s just how that character sees things. And he sees things in a very specific way based on where he comes from and what’s happening to him in the movie.

Aravind, The White Tiger was obviously a huge hit when it was published. What is the legacy of this book today?
Adiga: The White Tiger comes out of a very optimistic period in Indian history when the economy was growing very rapidly after decades of stagnation and the country became an economic power. India’s economic transformation begins in 1991, and today, we are exactly 30 years later. The novel falls at the precise midpoint, in 2006. People were questioning a lot of what was taken for granted in Indian society. This is something that maybe isn’t apparent to someone from outside. The novel is very much a critique of society, but it’s also very much a product of a liberal Indian society. When it was published, I was living in Mumbai, and people from other countries would ask me, “Are you safe after having a book like this?” And I would tell them, “The only danger is being mobbed at a bookstore.” [Laughs] India was a very free country. I’m a very conservative, boring person. I loved the new entrepreneurial view that the Indians were showing, which was unimaginable in my time. But also it left me slightly anxious. It was important that the characters should be ambivalent and likable both. All of them, to me, were people in transition.

What’s the situation like now?
Adiga: There’s much less optimism today in India than at the time when the book was written. The Indian economy began slowing down well before COVID. There’s also been a darkening of the political climate — there’s less freedom of expression today than there was back then. At its core, Indian society remains progressive. It’s just that, sadly, there’s an increasingly vocal group of extremists who have been given too much prominence by social media. But in a strange way, some of what the book has to say about India and its economic divides now seems much more relevant to other countries because of this great polarization of wealth, the stratification of Western societies, which has been really gathering pace in the last 15 years.

I was in California last year for the first time. I’ve never learned to drive a car, and in Los Angeles, incredibly, the only way to get into some buildings was through the car park because nobody would assume that you would walk in. So I would just stand outside the car park waiting for someone to drive up so that I can get into the damn building. You’d see me dashing in like a thief! These subterranean places always fascinate me visually — these autonomous social enclaves that literally, physically exist below the space we live in.

In the car parks in Los Angeles, there’d be one attendant, usually, almost always a man of color, sitting there, and next to him would be a giant sign: “The carbon monoxide in this place can be carcinogenic in the state of California.” This is astounding. What are we to make of a social system that on the one hand has this extraordinary exaggerated concern for the human rights of some people — those who have the luxury of being in a car — and absolute disdain for this invisible man who’s sitting there the whole day because he has to make a living? And the only reason I saw this is because I’ve lived my life so clumsily and inappropriately that I’m forced to run into parking spaces to get into buildings. Much of the observation in The White Tiger stems from the fact that even in India, for a variety of reasons, my inability to drive led to my being cut off from my family. I was forced to do things that I wouldn’t normally do otherwise as a middle-class person. I don’t think of myself as a very observant person, except when I’m uncomfortable or in an unusual setting.

You guys talked earlier about how when you were young you’d spend a lot of time watching and talking about movies. What would you say is the biggest disagreement you’ve ever had about a movie?
Adiga: I remember I never took to Bresson’s Pickpocket — ironically, a film that you might think was connected to The White Tiger — or any of Bresson’s films, which to me seemed horribly contrived. To me, it just seemed like a film student making a film on Dostoyevsky. When the pickpocket is being handcuffed, Ramin says, “That’s a great scene!” “Yes, he’s been handcuffed, what’s the deal?” Then Ramin would tell me that there were technical reasons that I couldn’t understand why Pickpocket was one of the most important films of all time. [Laughs.] And the French New Wave, which never impressed me as much as it has impressed him. He is almost always right on cinema in the long run.

Bahrani: I can’t remember, do you also feel that way about Antonioni?

Adiga: Not about Antonioni. Generally, when it’s a disagreement over films, if I watch it a second time, I know you’d be right. I found The Master very difficult to watch. I think I went in on a bad morning when I was very hungover, and I thought it was just terrible. Ramin said, “No, this is one of the great films of our time!” And he’s right. I watched it subsequently, and it is pretty extraordinary. I remember back in the ’90s, he would say that the original Godfather was actually much better than The Godfather 2, which went against the general opinion of the time — people felt that The Godfather 2 was the real masterpiece. And I think he was right. There’s a simplicity to the original film, which is very hard to beat.

My entire my life as a film viewer has largely been guided by Ramin. Because in New York in the 1990s, there were lots of cinema halls around the city, in Manhattan, where you could watch films for like $2 or $3, classic films, older films. And I would often go to these places. There was Symphony Space near Columbia. And there was Lincoln Center, the Walter Reade. Many of these places would show films so cheap. There was one particular theater that used to show two terrific films for $2 or something. I think it’s shut down.

Bahrani: Theatre 80 St. Marks. It became a live stage theater.

Adiga: Back then, it was a lot of money because I was a foreign student on a scholarship. And I once watched Renoir’s Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. After coming out of the cinema hall at 11 p.m., I realized I didn’t have money for a subway token. So I had to walk over 100 blocks to get back to Columbia. I called Ramin the next day and told him I’d done it, and he said, “For those two films, you should have walked 200 blocks!”

Behind the 25-Year Friendship That Led to The White Tiger