Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani first read an early draft of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, in 2004. He told Aravind, “‘If this doesn’t get published, there’s something wrong with the world.’ It was so good, even in its rough form. It was so inventive, funny, subversive, hilarious.”
Fifteen years later, Ramin would go on to adapt it into a film for Netflix.
The book is told from the perspective of Balram Halwai, a low-caste driver in India who makes it his mission to escape poverty at any cost. “The character was so alive. The world was so incredible,” Ramin recalls. “You couldn’t stop reading it. I had always wanted to make it into a film. It just took a long time to get to be the right time and the right place.”
Ramin and Aravind had been friends for decades at this point, so it was fitting that Ramin would be the one to bring Aravind’s words to the screen. They met as undergraduates at Columbia University, where Aravind studied literature and Ramin studied film theory. “There was a group of us, Iranians, Indians, Lebanese, Afghans, and Aravind and I clicked because he wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a filmmaker. We started trading our work for notes and talked about movies and books a lot.”
Read the book—over and over again
Aravind was supportive of Ramin’s adaptation from the beginning. But, even though the two had been sending their work back and forth for decades, he never wanted to see the script. He gave Ramin full permission to change whatever he wanted, to make the film however he envisioned it. (Aravind has since watched the film. “Thank God he liked it,” Ramin says.)
Ramin searched the text for the character’s arc, underlining every beat. He pulled out critical character transitions and key moments of Balram’s journey, potential voiceover and lines of dialogue.
From there, Ramin wrote a 200-page first draft, and began to cut. At every step, from location scouting to casting to shooting, there would be cuts and rewrites, until he had whittled it down to a 120-page blueprint.
After the first draft, as Ramin has done with all his previous features, he flew to India to do research on the ground.
Walk the world of the story
Once in India, Aravind advised Ramin to take a bus and walk the streets and meet people. Not an easy feat during the summer months, when temperatures reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Delhi.
“Get out of the air-conditioned, chauffeured car and get on the street the way a servant would,” Aravind told Ramin. And he did. He walked through Old Delhi, visited Connaught Place and met drivers hanging out in the parking lot there. When location scouting a luxury apartment tower, he went to the garage to meet the drivers. These dialogues helped Ramin make sure the texture and feel of the film remained authentic.
Most of Ramin’s other films stem from original scripts, but they’re always based on a deep understanding of place. “That’s where the characters, plot and everything come out of,” he says. For 99 Homes, his 2014 film about the housing crisis, Ramin spent a couple months in Fort Myers and Kissimmee, Florida, tracing the nuances of the places and the people he would be bringing to life onscreen.
Ramin’s way of working is similar to his way of living. As an adult, he found himself spending three years in Iran. His father came from Borozjan, a small village in the south of the country, but Ramin grew up in North Carolina, speaking Persian before he learned English and listening to stories about his parents’ homeland. “I thought I had to go to Iran to know more about who I was and where I came from, the culture, the cinema, the poetry and the people—everything. I went for what I thought would be six weeks, but I stayed for three years because it was an experience. I felt I was growing as a person and as an artist.”
“That time really helped me understand India a bit easier,” he adds. “They’re obviously very different countries. India’s diversity in terms of languages, religions, people is much vaster than anything in Iran. The scale of the country is on another dimension in India than in Iran. But rolling into that village in India, I felt like, ‘I’ve been here. I know this. Okay, there’s a water buffalo; Iran has donkeys. But they’re not that different.'"
Watch a lot of movies
When it came time to write the script, Ramin decided he would keep the first-person narration from the novel. “The voice is so specific, so funny, sarcastic and witty, that there was no way I was going to lose that,” he says. But the only time he had ever written voiceover before was in a short film, Plastic Bag, where Werner Herzog voices the consciousness of a plastic bag. So he looked to the classics, like Kind Hearts and Coronets and Jules and Jim, and more modern takes, like Fight Club and Goodfellas, to figure out his way around the V.O.
In Fight Club, Ramin says, “the main character starts to become unhinged as the story progresses. His voiceover is personal, but it’s also social commentary.” A lot of that echoed Balram’s perspective, swapping commentary about Starbucks and Ikea for commentary about the “rooster coop” (as Balram puts it) that is India’s caste system.
These films helped Ramin conceptualize Balram’s story, that of caste and servitude in India, visually. Ramin also decided that, sometimes, it’s okay if the image and language say the same thing. “Many people say, ‘Don’t say and show at the same time.’ Great movies often do. In Goodfellas, they say, ‘You’ve got to slice the garlic really thin,’ and we have an extreme closeup of garlic being sliced really thin and it plays great. It works.”
Find your characters
Through the casting process, Ramin looks for actors who can bring a new dimension to his characters. “One of the things I liked about [Adarsh Gourav, the actor who plays Balram] was he was good at improv,” he says. “I like to read with any actor that I’m interested in one-on-one. I immediately go off-book, meaning I start to wander from the pages they’ve rehearsed. I just start saying other things to see what they would do.”
He’s drawn to actors who are willing to go with the flow and take risks. Adarsh fit the bill. “He was good at being alive. He was good at listening, and when we cast him, he did the research.” The actor spent a month in a village similar to Balram’s, and then back in Delhi, he spent weeks washing dishes at a tea stall and other odd jobs like carrying metal, embodying the character as he would exist in the real world. He learned what it meant to feel invisible.
‘Searching’ on set
Even on set, Ramin is excited to change things up. “God willing, you have a strong blueprint, but for me, on the day, the goal is to find something new with the actors and with the camera,” he says. He always comes in with “a strong plan of how I’m going to shoot it, what the camera’s going to be, what lens I’m going to use, how the camera’s going to move and what the setups are. I know all of that. I might make a floor plan just to help the AD, but I tell them in advance, ‘Don’t hold me to this.’ Because when we go to shoot, I’m going to be pushing the actors to change things and find a new way and to search. The number one word on set is ‘search.’”
“Can we find another dimension to this scene? Can you, the actor, interpret it in a way we haven’t thought of before? If it doesn’t work, so what? We’ll try something else. There’s no right and wrong on set. You’re just searching.”
“The DP knows that, too. If something better for the scene turns up, we will change. If it’s raining, we might change. If we finally saw the way the wallpaper was going to look that the designer made, we might change. The actor decides to stand instead of sit, that’s okay.”
Ultimately, Ramin tells stories in hopes that viewers will connect and relate to them on some level. And The White Tiger, about a driver in India trying to break through the ranks, is no exception.
“To me, this story feels so specific to India, but one that could be understood anywhere in the world. I showed it to a friend of mine who’s from Zimbabwe and she watched it with her mom and her cousins. They’re all from Zimbabwe, but live in Los Angeles now, and when the movie was done, she said her mom said, ‘My God, that movie’s about Zimbabwe.’”
It’s a testament, Ramin says, to Aravind’s writing—and his burning desire to tell the story about life as an outsider. “In India, no one had written about a servant before. No one had written about a driver like that,” Ramin says. “Just the act of doing it was subversive. I had tried to do that with my work. No one bothers to make movies about a push cart vendor or kids working in chop shops or a Senegalese taxi driver. Those movies [Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo] were made back in 2005, ’06, ’07. It wasn’t popular to be diverse back then. It was a struggle.”
The story, the one told in Aravind’s words and Ramin’s images, is “about a man who wants to be free to achieve his full potential in life—ultimately at any cost. It’s about a man who is trapped by his economic lot in life. He’s trapped by his family. He’s trapped by class. He’s trapped by a rigged, quote, ‘democracy.’ He is prepared to do anything to break free from that cage,” Ramin says. “That, to me, is universal.”
The White Tiger begins streaming on Netflix on Jan. 22.