Why 60 million people from around the world watched 'The White Tiger' in one month

Published April 28, 2021, 12:24 PM

by Rica Arevalo

‘New director of the decade’ Ramin Bahrani makes his biggest film on Netflix

Rag to riches story of an Indian driver

We caught the live streaming of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Master Class with director Ramin Bahrani last week with TIFF executive director and co-head Cameron Bailey as moderator. We met Cameron when he came to the Philippines in 2007 to meet local filmmakers while he checked out the rising Philippine independent film scene.

Film critic Roger Ebert listed Ramin as the “the new director of the decade.” He is the writer, director and producer of The White Tiger.

Cameron Bailey and Ramin Bahrani

Adapting the 40th Man Booker Prize winner, Aravind Adiga’s contemporary novel, it chronicles an Indian servant’s rise to power. The author and director have been friends since college way back in the 1990s.

“Aravind and I became friends probably because he wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a filmmaker,” the 2009 Guggenheim Fellow says. “And most children of immigrants are funneled into a path of doctor, lawyer, and engineer. We are the oddities.”

Both studied at the Columbia University. “The youthful time he wrote it and the youthful time I was making my first film, we didn’t think much about anything,” recalls the 46-year-old Ramin. “You just made what you feel like, and just recapture that energy.”

Ramin’s parents are from Iran. “I was born and raised in North Carolina. My father comes from a very poor background, from a village very similar to The White Tiger,” he muses.

What is special in Ramin’s work? He has an eye for characters that we don’t typically see in the movies. Protagonists become anti-heroes because of the brutal system around them. Viewers embrace these flaws, searching for human empathy in finding their true soul.

Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav, comes from a poor village in India. “He had a duality which I needed,” explains Ramin of the actor who was recently awarded the Rising Star award at The Asian World Film Festival. “When he smiled and talked, you immediately like him. He was immediately apathetic and charming.”

In his first leading role, Adarsh demonstrated how his character could dive into a darker, more intense mood, even committing a premeditated murder. He is the loyal driver who uses wit and sarcasm to win his fight against poverty and oppression.

Ramin Bahrani directs Adarsh Gourav

The film is told from Balram’s point of view, as he turns from a naive villager into a cunning corporate predator. His goal is to set up a meeting with a Chinese official to make known his successful taxi service business.

The 2007 Someone to Watch Award Independent Spirit Awardee gives freedom to all his actors. “You do make discoveries that no one has ever thought before,” he says.

Ramin never says, “Action!” or “Cut!” on the set. “There’s always magic if there is no cut, because they do not know what to do exactly but they know the camera is still rolling,” he explains. “They have to improvise or go into a contemplative mood.”

Other cast members include Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Mahesh Manjrekar. “For me, they (actors) blossomed. They gave me material that I could never dream of on my own,” says Ramin.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas (middle)

He waited for the proper time to produce The White Tiger, close to 30 years. “I gained a lot of experience, including missteps,” says the Fahrenheit 451 director. “Those always teach you the most, [those] projects that you work hard on but don’t turn out the way you hope they would. You end up learning a lot from those.”

The White Tiger was produced by Netflix, whose management gave Ramin only 60 days to shoot the 125-minute drama film. “They told me conservatively that the film was seen by 60 million people in one month,” he says.

People from Nigeria Brazil, London, US, Russia, Korea, among others reached out to Ramin with messages telling him what they felt the film was about and it was always about them or about their countries.

One of the important lines delivered in movie was, “The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave.”

The White Tiger, streaming on Netflix, vied for the Best Adapted Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards.