The world knows him as the wide-eyed Balram Halwai in director Ramin Bahrani’s retelling of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger on the psychology of servitude in India. It is a role for which he has just received a Best Actor nomination in the Independent Spirit Awards and been longlisted for a BAFTA. And it’s just the start of award season.
But the 26-year-old breakout star of the Netflix original is not an overnight success. His is a long journey from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, to Mumbai, training in classical music, singing in local competitions, becoming a finalist on Jharkhand Idol at 11, before being discovered on stage by an acting scout at 13.
Even as The White Tiger received mixed reviews in India, Adarsh Gourav has been singled out for praise. Internationally, the applause is deafening. Variety called him a “small marvel” and The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said his “range of feelings and moods is like an elite athlete’s range of motion”.
Gourav played a young Shah Rukh Khan in My Name Is Khan (2010) and had smaller roles in the 2017 film Mom, Deepa Mehta’s series Leila (2019) and Anurag Kashyap’s anthology film Madly (2016). Film critic Aseem Chhabra singles out Atanu Mukherjee’s Rukh (2017) as Gourav’s strongest performance; he played a quiet, emotional high-schooler investigating the death of his father.
Over a video call from his home in Mumbai, with his guitar resting on the wall behind, Gourav tells me his life has been a string of bizarre coincidences. We spoke about his “psychophysical” preparation for his role, his college bands, being star-struck in Mumbai and why he can’t stop talking about Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Edited excerpts:
You have just been nominated for Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards and long-listed for the BAFTA, all in a span of one week. How are you handling it?
I feel overwhelmed. It’s surreal to read my name alongside Tom Hanks, Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Gary Oldman. These are the kind of artists who have shaped my decision to be an actor. I am not stressed because just being considered on the same list is already an award for me.
For your role in ‘The White Tiger’, you lived in a village in Jharkhand and also worked at a food stall in Delhi in the three months you had to prepare. I understand this is something you decided to do yourself. What led you to this process?
I like doing this kind of homework for every film. It’s just that with other films I have had less time so my preparation has not been as elaborate.
It’s very important for me, if I am playing a character, to live his life as closely as possible, and not just understand what he’s saying in the script. It’s a psychophysical process when you try to become someone else and it’s very important for my body to experience that as much as my mind.
I told Ramin I want to go live in a village. Initially, the plan was to come to Delhi after that and try to get a job as a driver. That didn’t work out; no one was going to hire a random person with no experience. I thought about alternatives and decided to work at a food stall because Balram works in a tea stall in his village and it’s something he doesn’t enjoy doing. I tried looking for a job but because I was introducing myself as Balram and people wanted to see my ID card, this was tough too. Finally, on the third day, I got a job at a food stall selling puri-sabzi that didn’t ask to see my ID. I was cleaning plates, running small errands and keeping the place clean. I did that for two weeks.
Were you surprised by how badly you were treated?
Not at all. That is the reality. You work for more than 12 hours a day and get paid ₹100, and your boss and the customers are constantly shouting at you. I was fortunate to have done that for two weeks and come back to my reality, but everyone doesn’t have that choice.
‘The White Tiger’ isn’t an easy film to watch. What was the hardest scene to film for you?
One scene that was very hard was the confession scene, because Ramin wanted to come really close to my face and Vijay Sir (Vijay Maurya) was sitting right behind the camera, and I wanted to look at him. You draw energy from your co-actor when you are doing the scene, but I couldn’t because the camera was on my face. The only way I could perform was looking at a piece of tape and imagining it was Vijay Sir’s face.
Recording the voice-over was very challenging for me too. We had some 20-25 studio sessions, and I was nervous the whole time thinking, “What if people fall asleep listening to my voice?”
What was your key takeaway from the international production atmosphere? How has Adarsh Gourav changed as a person after that experience?
In the past, I have over-prepared to the extent that I’ve read the script 50-60 times even before filming has started. I would lock and fix things even before I went on floor. My biggest learning experience here was “I did not do that” and “that worked”. I invested in understanding the person I was playing, and then I gave myself the freedom to flow in the scene, which Ramin allowed me to do.
I can see the guitar behind you, and I believe you trained in classical music for many years. You were in two college bands and you have been singing on stage from a young age. In what way has your musical training contributed to your acting process?
Actually, I have immense stage fright. I am petrified about making eye contact with the audience. But music helps me vary my voice, and it also helps me to imagine better, because I used to write songs for my band. My musical exposure has been very diverse, from classical music to being part of a post-metal band and then a progressive rock band…it gave me a lot of perspective not just into music but also the musicians and their lives.
Most crucially, it helped me understand rhythm. People, nature, a car, a clock…everything has a rhythm, and music helped me understand and identify patterns around me. I think an understanding of rhythm is crucial for an actor, especially when you are doing comedy. I don’t think I am good at comedy yet, but I have a preliminary understanding of comic timing because of music.
You don’t come from a family of artists. You moved from Jamshedpur to Mumbai at the age of 13 when your father was transferred. Were you star-struck and do you think the move aided you in this journey to become an actor?
I don’t think I would have been an actor if we hadn’t moved to Bombay. And you are right, I was incredibly star-struck when we first moved. I saw Tusshar Kapoor and Akshay Kumar on the street, and I was perplexed that nobody was running behind them because in Bombay it was all so normalised.
My father got his first government quarters in Juhu and we were staying 500m from Amitabh Bachchan’s house. My neighbour used to take me on bike rides and we would see Amitabh Bachchan’s house, Shatrugan Sinha’s house, Jeetendra’s house, and I would be blown. It was also the way of life, the cars. I had only seen one Mercedez Benz in my life. In Jamshedpur, there was one olive green Mercedes Benz. We're talking about 2004-2005. I would call my friends and tell them what cars I saw that day. I wasn’t fluent in English, and I spoke Hindi like a kid from Bihar would. I took some time to adjust to the overall vibe of Bombay.
Was your family on board with your foray into acting? I read that when you worked with Anurag Kashyap on ‘Madly’, you requested him to speak to your mother to reassure her you had a future in acting.
There wasn’t any resistance. My family is incredibly accepting and I think they have evolved with me, which is a rarity for someone in their 40s and 50s.
When I told them I wanted to go for auditions, they were encouraging. My mother used to take me for the auditions. I was too young when I was asked if I wanted to act. I was approached while singing on stage at the Kala Ghoda festival by Nazli Currimbhoy, who used to handle the talent academy at Raell Padamsee’s theatre company. Till then, I hadn’t thought about acting. I used to love telling stories as a kid though; I used to lie about everything.
Strangely, when I was in sixth grade and interviewed by Dainik Jagran, I had said I wanted to be an actor. I feel like my life has been a series of coincidences, and my lies come true.
Since your wishes come true, is there a role you would really like to do?
I would really like to play an athlete… a long-distance runner. I love running, I run every day (on the street) and I have done some competitive running as well.
You have worked with Anurag Kashyap, Rami Bahrani and Deepa Mehta, all directors with very different oeuvres. How would you describe their styles?
I see similarities in Ramin and Anurag Sir because they both believe in improvisation. Anurag Sir will rewrite a scene once he goes on set. Similarly, Ramin doesn’t fix things. They are both very calm and cool-headed.
With Deepa, it was a very short experience—I shot only for five days for Leila—but I really enjoyed the workshop that we did ahead of filming. Deepa got her friend, the theatre artist Neelam Mansingh, to come down from Chandigarh and we really got to explore our characters and get to know our co-actors.
In ‘The White Tiger’, your character Balram Halwai has a kindred spirit in Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). You had one-on-one scenes and she was also a producer on the film. What was your equation like in real life? Did you tell her you were both from Jamshedpur?
The first time I was going to meet her, I was very nervous because you have grown up watching these people on screen. Cinema and sports are those two mediums where one day you are watching your heroes on screen and the next day you are working with them.
We met in her house in Bombay for a reading: it was me, Ramin and Raj. Priyanka was so warm and kind. Of course, I told her I was from Jamshedpur because everyone from Jamshedpur is so proud of being from there, we have to bring it up.
I loved Priyanka in Kaminey and Barfi. She’s a positive person, game for improvising, game for giving it her all. It was inspiring watching her work because though she has been at it for 20 years, she’s not complacent.
If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to speak to Elon Musk about his plans for the Hyperloop, about SpaceX, about Tesla. And about how he envisions our future.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.