The White Tiger's Adarsh Gourav aims for global domination
The young actor is up for Best Actor at the upcoming BAFTAs
What do Anthony Hopkins, Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Tahar Rahim, and Adarsh Gourav have in common? A shot at the leading actor trophy at the upcoming British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) on April 11. For 26-year-old Gourav, who came to Mumbai from Jamshedpur as a teenager and at one point harboured ambitions of being a playback singer, it is a surreal moment, sharing a BAFTA roundtable with these thespians. When we catch up with Indian cinema’s hottest property right now, over Zoom, there is an indisputable sense of earthiness that comes across, probably a vestige of the role he played in Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of the 2008 Man Booker Prize winner, Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger. As Balram Halwai, an ambitious lowly servant-driver to an affluent Indian family, Gourav brought a certain rawness and edginess to his character that was hard to ignore. The movie might not have pleased all, especially hardcore India buffs who felt it showcased a side of the country that was best left in the dark, but the young actor’s portrayal of the son of the soil was so intense that it was almost as if the Indian audience had woken up to a new artist.
It took the success of the 2021 Netflix film for many to wake up to the fact that Gourav had made his debut in 2010’s Shah Rukh Khan starrer, My Name is Khan, and has some memorable roles to his credit, including Sridevi’s Mom (2017) and the web series Leila. His latest accolade is the Rising Star Award bestowed by the Asian World Film Festival. When we point out that the tag seems ironic considering he has been part of the acting fraternity for over 10 years, Gourav, in turn, mentions that he found it funny that the award was called the Snow Leopard, a fitting tribute to the man who played the ‘White Tiger’. Excerpts from our interview.
How would you describe your acting journey upto the release of The White Tiger?
Everything I have done has been instrumental in me becoming a part of a film like The White Tiger. Every project was a learning curve for me. It changed me as an artist and a person for the better and contributed to my evolution as a human being and as an actor, so I think it has been a very amazing journey for me and I am very excited to be where I am right now.
How does it feel to be nominated for leading actor at the BAFTAs alongside artists like Anthony Hopkins, Chadwick Boseman and Riz Ahmed?
It feels very strange to read my name next to Anthony Hopkins because I am a big Hannibal Lecter fan — both of the book and the film The Silence of the Lambs. Mads Mikkelsen played Hannibal in the series and Sir Anthony Hopkins played the real Hannibal; (with a laugh) I feel a little bit like Clarice (Starling) stuffed between two Hannibals! It feels unbelievable to be nominated next to these legends. I have a virtual roundtable with these actors and I just don’t know what I’m going to say! It is so weird — you have seen them all your life on your laptop screen and all of a sudden you are sitting alongside them.
What was it that first attracted you to films — was it stardom or…
I never wanted to be an actor; I wanted to be a playback singer. I started auditioning when I was around 14. After many years of auditioning, I realised this was what I enjoyed doing. I found meaning in life when I acted and played another person and understood the psychology of another person. I found a sense of thrill in doing that and the only other thing that gave me that sense of thrill was running. But it was too late to make a career as a professional runner! I’ve also been learning classical music but at some point of time after moving to Bombay, I lost interest in it. Acting was the only thing that really made me feel very happy and at age 19, I decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
You have a lot in common with your White Tiger co-star Priyanka Chopra. Has her global career inspired you, considering both of you came from small towns, are interested in music…
…I’m just not Ms World! I am a very ambitious person and I want to work in a lot of films with a lot of different directors and be part of stories that affect me in some way. Money is not something that drives me. It is the thrill of being able to interpret people who are different from each other. If I’ve played somebody like Naz in Leila; I want to play somebody like Mohit in Mom and then I want to play Balram in The White Tiger. Whatever comes next I feel has to be different from whatever space in mind I’ve got into, because that is when it becomes interesting. I have been auditioning for things in the West too as I have been in India. I just want to be a global actor — I want to work across the world, in India, in different languages — I want to work in Tamil and Telugu films. Wherever I get the opportunity and wherever I feel this is a story that needs to be told, I want to be a part of that.
So Bollywood is not a tag that has attracted you ever?
I never thought I’d be a big actor or a star. I am just here to act. I’m not saying that I have achieved that. I’m saying that was never my motivation in the first place. I just wanted to have fun and wanted to act.
To what do you attribute the success of The White Tiger?
It’s never one thing. It is so many things that come together. It’s like what Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers — it is foolish for any successful person to think that he alone is responsible for his success; there are a million people responsible for where he is today. It’s the same for anything in life. What’s important is that it (The White Tiger) is based on a Man Booker Prize-winning novel and when a film is announced on it, everybody is eager to watch it. Then you have Ramin Bahrani, who is the most outstanding director in the world, according to me, somebody who has a deep understanding of the cultures of the world, who is so passionate about cinema and has a singular focus towards what he does… Then there is a platform like Netflix due to which it becomes possible for people in 150 countries to watch the film. Then you get an executive producer like Priyanka Chopra, who also plays Pinky Madam, and then you get someone like Rajkummar (Rao) to play Ashok and Paolo Carnera, the DP. Everybody who works on the film from the art team to the production team to the makeup team to the spot dada to the light men — everyone is responsible for The White Tiger becoming what it is. It is never one person.
But did you have an inkling that the movie would turn out to be such a success and get BAFTA and Oscar nominations…
I didn’t have the slightest inkling. I was just excited — I remember me and Ramin would have these conversations during the shoot that a lot of his earlier films had gone and premiered at the Venice Film Festival. So I was just hoping that The White Tiger maybe has a chance of premiering in one of these film festivals in Europe, like in Berlin or Cannes or Venice, and because of that I’d get to travel Europe and get to meet a lot of different people! I was excited about that experience more than anything. I don’t think anybody can ever think while shooting for a film that this is 100 per cent going to the Oscars. I don’t think it works that way.
‘Eat or get eaten’ is a recurrent theme in The White Tiger — does that resonate with you in terms of the competition you have to face in the film industry?
Acting is one of the most lucrative professions along with cricket, singing, and now with the digital space, being a blogger or Youtuber. There’s cutthroat competition there. The fact is that you are competing with 120 crore other people out of which probably say 20 per cent of the population actually wants to be an actor. That is the reality of it — you are competing with a lot of people — which is why I think you need to be very clear as a human being as to why you are doing this, what motivates you. You have to constantly update yourself. If Virat Kohli had decided in 2010, because the commentators were saying that this guy is potentially a very good cricketer, that he was satisfied with that and stopped, he would not have been a legend in today’s world, right? He went and lost the extra kilos and became such a disciplined person that he hasn’t even had junk food in the last six years and on top of that, he has built his repertoire of shots. I think for any artist or any human being to get ahead in life, you need to constantly evolve and keep adding things to who you are. That is the only truth in life and everything else is a variable.
Twenty years on how do you want to remember this moment you are living now?
This is just such a pleasant phase in my life, I feel very motivated, I feel very impatient and very enthusiastic to do so many things at once. That’s all I know.