As an aspiring actor from Jamshedpur, Adarsh Gourav would often reference Imtiaz Ali and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as two star products of the steel city. He harboured a hope that one day he would meet Chopra and be able to tell her of their hometown connection. But the 26-year-old actor could not have predicted that the opportunity would present itself in his first major motion picture role.
Gourav, who made his debut as the teenage Rizvan in My Name is Khan earned acclaim for his role as Dhruv in Rukh, plays the lead in Hindi-English crime drama The White Tiger (on Netflix from 22 January). An adaptation of Aravind Adiga's novel, the feature film is directed by American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani and also stars Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
Gourav plays Balram, a young man from a village who turns his fortunes " by fair means and foul " to become a successful entrepreneur in modern India. It's a powerful performance that the Wall Street Journal described as "a sensational star turn".
Here are the excerpts from an interview with the actor and singer:
How did you land the part of Balram?
I was jobless for five months. I had given many auditions but was not getting any work. I was going through a lot of self-doubt. Then just as I was almost locked for one film, I got a call for The White Tiger audition. I had read the book as a teen and I knew the plot and knew what Balram's character was about. I felt maybe the film was way too big and out of my league, but I decided to go ahead and audition anyway. After four to five rounds of auditions, I got locked for the part.
What was the process for finding 'Balram' and creating his onscreen character?
I don't refer to the character in the third person. If I am playing Balram, then I am Balram from the moment I have the part. So I needed to know what it was like to live in a village and what village people think about the city and city life. In order to understand that I went and stayed in a village in Jharkhand for two weeks. I stayed with a friend and even his parents didn't know I was an actor. They all thought I was just visiting and helping my friend write a story about the village.
Then I came to Delhi and because Balram hates working at the tea stall in the village and wants to get out, I got a job at a small puri stall in Saket where I would clean plates, sweep the floors and work about 12 hours a day, for which I got paid Rs 100. Worked there for about two weeks till the script readings started.
I would always be dressed as Balram and looked like Balram. Otherwise, I would not get a job. I roamed the streets of Delhi in Balram's clothes and interacted with random strangers.
Any particular incident that you recall, that affected you as Balram?
One day when I was walking towards my hotel, a guy who was driving a small van carrying metal rods for a construction site called out to me. He asked me to help him lift the rods and for that work, he gave me chai-paani of Rs 20. With that experience, of not even opening my mouth but randomly being called by a complete stranger to do something very menial, I realised I am Balram. That validation gave me a lot of confidence.
Still from The White Tiger. Image from Twitter
And this ties in with Adiga's theme of the class divide in India.
Yes. Working in a stall and walking on the streets, it became clear that unless you are a public personality or very good looking or are wearing very good clothes, people don't stop and look at you because there are hundreds of thousands of people walking around. My idea was to become invisible, to be one in the crowd, to achieve this insignificance where nobody really cares whether you exist or not. That is Balram, and that is why he never gets caught.
This is your first leading role and your first international film. What was it like to work with this cast?
I was very inspired by all of them. I had seen Ramin's films in MAMI and knew I was working with a genius. The kind of creative liberties we had on set, as performers, was not anything I had experienced before in my life. I was very excited and enthusiastic to work with Rajkummar whose work I have admired ever since he started his career. He has made some incredibly interesting and bold choices as an actor. I was curious to see their process and hopeful I would learn something from them on set.
What did you learn?Most important, just how humble, level-headed and hungry they all are to give a good performance. They are not complacent. They are still up there because they work hard and are still passionate.
Did you get a chance to tell Priyanka Chopra Jonas of your Jamshedpur connection?I met her for the first time at her house, for a script reading. I would always tell people that I am from the same city as Priyanka Chopra and Imtiaz Ali, and I told her this. I am a huge fan of her work in Barfi and Kaminey and after working with her, I am a fan of her as a human being. She is so genuine and treats people so well. I am so lucky to work with all these actors in my first major film.
Are you looking for an international career as well?I have harboured the desire to work internationally. Movies have a universal language and the core emotions remain the same, irrespective of language. I also want to work within India in Tamil, Telugu (which I speak) and Malayalam films.
Do you still practice music?I do, every day. Also in lockdown, I taught myself to play the guitar. I am no longer in a band as I was in college but I want to sing professionally and for my characters in my films. I am also open to doing playback.
Your Twitter bio says: "Mostly an actor, occasionally a crow". Please elaborate?I always had a keen interest in animals. I impersonate dogs, pigeons, and crows. Freshly out of drama school, I directed a play called AyyoRaju where I played a dog. The dog is behind the white curtain and never comes on stage and I constantly bark. After the show, people would come backstage to meet the dog. I would say I am the dog but I had to bark to convince them. Then when I was living in Amboli, Mumbai, I would sit on the ledge of the window with my cup of coffee. Outside that window was a tree filled with crows and I would have this interaction with them every morning. One day a friend walked in and he was shocked to see this. And my secret was out.