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Director Ramin Bahrani On The Book That Inspired Netflix's 'The White Tiger'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many years ago, Ramin Bahrani was a college student. He made a friend who was Indian American, an aspiring novelist named Aravind Adiga.

RAMIN BAHRANI: We met as undergraduates at Columbia University. And we connected, you know. There was a group of us - Indians, Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese - that were hanging out. And he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a filmmaker. And so I would share scripts. He would share manuscripts for feedback, as I would.

INSKEEP: His friend showed him a manuscript that eventually became an acclaimed novel called "The White Tiger." Director Ramin Bahrani has now made his friend's novel into a film, which is out today. The novel "The White Tiger" commanded attention when it came out and commands attention as a movie now because it is a story of inequality, of haves and have-nots.

BAHRANI: I think, more than anything, it's a critique of this idea that another man should be a servant to somebody.

INSKEEP: The main character begins as a poor boy growing up in rural India. He first accepts his apparent destiny as a servant to the rich and then gradually adopts extreme means to advance himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHITE TIGER")

ADARSH GOURAV: (As Balram) I was a servant once. Today, I'm a celebrated entrepreneur in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about India by telling you the story of my life.

BAHRANI: The story is an epic story, in a way like "Goodfellas" maybe. You see his childhood briefly. He's a poor villager, but he's very skilled. He's intelligent. He gets a scholarship to a school. But he's pulled out of the school to make money for the family. And then when we see him as an adult, he is a servant. And he gets a job working for a rich family, driving them around in Delhi. But there is a terrible moment in the middle of the film, an accident. And when they pin the blame on the driver, things really spiral out of control.

INSKEEP: I think it is in that period of the film, where things are growing dark, that Balram, the main character, poses a question. Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?

BAHRANI: Well, this is one of Aravind Adiga, the author's, great lines, one of many in the novel. That's that contradiction. And some part of him, I think, of Balram's character really does love his masters. He loves their power, their wealth, their freedom. And some part of him does loathe them because of everything that he's not and was told he could never be.

INSKEEP: Why does the main character at one point start talking about a rooster coop?

BAHRANI: (Laughter) Roosters that are in a coop watch their fellow roosters get taken out and beheaded and chopped up to be made into food. And they don't do anything. They don't scream and shout. They don't rebel. They don't try and get out of the coop.

And the main character feels that the servant class in his country has been trained to behave this way, that the poor in the world really have been trained by the rich that that is their lot in life. But I think in a way, the film is saying something else by the end of this character's journey, that if you just put your hand in your pocket, you will discover a key. And it could open a door and lead you to a new chance, a chance to achieve your full potential as a human being.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you came from a family that was able to give you some opportunities. Was it hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who was born without any of that?

BAHRANI: You try to do the research, you know. I know Aravind, as a journalist, spent a lot of time all over India talking to people, drivers. I spent a couple of months there myself talking with people. What also helped, Steve, was hiring an Indian crew. My crew was 99% Indian. That helps with the authenticity. So you're doing your best not to condescend or pity or romanticize any of it.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Adarsh Gourav, the star, who described to us a little bit of his means of preparation to play this role of a servant. Let's listen to some of that.

GOURAV: After I got cast for the film, I spent a couple of weeks in a village. And I traveled to New Delhi and I worked on a small food cart where I was washing plates and running small errands for the guy who ran the stall. So yeah, I think it was very important for me to do that to really understand where Balram was coming from.

BAHRANI: Yeah. Well, I could tell you another story about that. He - when he was working in that food stall, I texted him that I needed him to come for a callback with a different actor. So he had to tell his boss that he was going to go get some bananas. And he ran to get them and just kept running and running and running and met me.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BAHRANI: (Laughter) The next day, he was roaming around Delhi looking for a new job as Balram. And some men were loading huge pieces of sharp metal into a truck. And they just called him over and said, start - they didn't ask him if you wanted a job. They just said, start loading this metal into a truck.

INSKEEP: He just looked like somebody who needed a job, I guess.

BAHRANI: Yes. He didn't even - they didn't ask him if he wanted to. They just told him to do it. And he did do it. And he cut up his hands. They paid him a very small amount of money. And he showed up at the office the next day with totally cut up hands. We brought him a doctor.

And they did - they just looked and said, you will load this truck with metal, period.

INSKEEP: I want to note that your description of crowding and relative poverty in India is - somehow at the same time it's difficult to look at, it is beautiful. They're just wonderful scenes. There'll be a shabby, rundown train, but it looks great in the sunlight. Or you'll see a bus on the highway with a couple of men hanging out the door because it's so crowded. And it's just amazing how comfortable they seem in that setting.

How did you go about representing the intricacy of life in this very populated country?

BAHRANI: We tried to capture that energy. There's a sequence, for example, where Balram shouts at a beggar woman who's asking him for a few rupees. And he just kind of improvises it. He went in a direction that nobody knew what he would do. And it's shot in a completely live environment in the most crowded part of Delhi, Old Delhi. And he just started talking to everybody in the streets. And they were all just staring at him as if he was a real person.

INSKEEP: I did have that moment of wondering, did they bring in hundreds of extras?

BAHRANI: He even shouts at the police...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BAHRANI: ...At the end of the scene. My God, they tried to arrest him later because they didn't understand who he was or what was going on. We had to stop them from arresting him.

INSKEEP: Did the process of making this change your perspective about anything?

BAHRANI: Yes. In making the film, honestly, when I was back in Brooklyn and COVID started and I was in an editing room all alone somewhere in Brooklyn and I was getting food delivered by apps on my phone - I had never use Seamless before - there was something strange about every few days someone knocking at the door and it was Balram, the lead character of my film, delivering me food in different faces and forms. And every time now I use my cellphone, which is basically a directory of servants, a way to have a sweatshop that surrounds us with our phones, I think about Balram and this film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Ramin Bahrani, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

BAHRANI: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: His new film is called "The White Tiger," and it's available on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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