Acclaimed Iranian American director Ramin Bahrani, it might appear, was fated to adapt Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger into a movie.
Adiga and Bahrani have been friends since their undergraduate days in New York City in the mid-1990s. When Adiga’s searing debut novel appeared in 2008, it was dedicated to Bahrani. Adiga is thanked in the credits of many of Bahrani’s films, which include Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and 99 Homes. A decade later, the director is working on a film adaptation of the Booker Prize winner for Netflix.
“We were undergraduate students together at Columbia University, and our friendship has somehow lasted from then until now,” Bahrani told Scroll.in in a phone interview from New York City. “He has always been generous in hearing my ideas, and he has been kind enough to read almost all my screenplays. He is one of the warmest people I know.”
Friendship isn’t the only factor to have worked in Bahrani’s favour. The 43-year-old filmmaker has arguably been working towards The White Tiger since his first movie, Man Push Cart (2005), about a burnt-out Pakistani singer who sells bagels and coffee on the streets of New York City. In all his movies, Bahrani has with uncommon empathy and perspicacity examined the reality of what it means to live on the margins, to cobble together a living from low-paying jobs, to cling on to dreams of a better life.
In Chop Shop (2007), a 12-year-old Latino orphan strives to save money to buy a food truck. Goodbye Solo (2008) traces the unusual relationship between a Senegalese taxi driver and a passenger who appears to be suicidal. In 99 Homes (2014), a construction worker who becomes a victim of foreclosure proceedings chooses an unusual survival strategy to win back his home.
The planets are perfectly aligned, then, for a big-screen version of Adiga’s savagely funny and immensely sad novel. The events in The White Tiger are narrated in the first person by Balram Halwai, who is born in a village in Bihar (referred to as “The Darkness”). Through a series of letters addressed to Chinese head of state Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India to witness its experiments with globalisation, Balram reveals himself to be a “self-taught entrepreneur” who has gone past a hardscrabble childhood, employment as a chauffeur of a wealthy political fixer in Delhi, and murder and theft to reach his current position of the owner of a taxi service in Bengaluru.
Adiga takes a scalpel to the themes of caste and class, institutionalised poverty and the feudal culture that creates “fully formed fellows” who “wear nice suits, join companies, and take orders from other men for the rest of their lives” as well as “half-baked entrepreneurs” like Balram Halwai, who knows all too well how to manipulate a system broken down by decades of unrelenting cruelty towards those on the margins.
“I remember reading the first draft, and it was very good even in its rough stage,” Bahrani said The White Tiger. “I have felt that about all of Aravind’s work – he is always trying to write something new all the time, never repeats himself, and is always trying to push himself.”
The novel has a richly cinematic quality, and is bursting with vivid images and pungent writing. “I shouldn’t talk too much about the screenplay, it’s still very early in the process,” Bahrani said. “What I can say is that since the book is so good, my rule will be to be close to what Aravind has written and only change things that need to be changed to fit into a screenplay format. You do have to make cuts in an adaptation, and everything won’t translate for the screen, but I am staying close to the book.”
Bahrani will be visiting India to scout for talent and locations after wrapping up an HBO production of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel about a future society in which books are burnt in an attempt to destroy knowledge. The 1953 novel was previously adapted as a movie by Francois Truffaut in 1966. Bahrani’s version stars Michael B Jordan, Sofia Boutella, Michael Shannon and Lilly Singh, and will be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The White Tiger is likely to be shot in Delhi and Bengaluru, and will use both English and Hindi. Bahrani will cast professional actors as well as non-actors, as he has done in the past. “In 99 Homes, for instance, there were Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield as well as lots of non-actors and new actors,” Bahrani pointed out. “The project afforded me the ability to do that. It didn’t make sense for Fahrenheit 451, but with The White Tiger, I can mix both.”
The rights to Adiga’s novel were bought by Mukul Deora, the Mumbai musician and producer, in 2011. There were reports that year that Deora was making the film along with some Hollywood producers. “When the book first came out, it didn’t seem to be the right time to do it,” Bahrani said. “I started discussing a possible film two years. I had been looking at the rights and getting in touch with the rights holders. It all worked out finally with Netflix coming on board.”
In addition to The White Tiger, Netflix is also producing a series based on Adiga’s 2016 cricket-themed novel Selection Day.
The White Tiger adaptation allows Bahrani to explore the single-biggest factor that he says motivates his project: risk. “I am taking many risks with The White Tiger that I haven’t taken in my work before, but it also feels like things I have also been handling,” Bahrani explained. Adiga includes surrealist moments in a narrative punctuated by dark irony, including a hallucinatory passage involving speaking fruit and a talking buffalo.
“I had Werner Herzog do the voiceover for my short film, Plastic Bag, and there some absurdism in that,” Bahrani said. “There is so much new to risk and try out.”
Bahrani attributes the gritty poetry of his films to his interest in documentaries and neo-realist cinema. His films draw on research and observation that detail the hard work that goes into making a living. Man Push Cart, for instance, has lengthy sequences that reveal how the central character, Ahmad, transports his pushcart and sets up his stand every single morning.
“I am a fan of documentary filmmakers like the Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Agnes Varda and Werner Herzog, especially their ability to use fictional elements and put in commentary until you don’t know which part is which,” Bahrani said. ‘In Chop Shop, for instance, there is a three-act structure hidden within the feeling of a documentary. I am also greatly inspired by real people and locations. I try and meet real people, be inspired by them, and not condescend to them.”
Another filmmaker he deeply admires for his ability to fictionalise life is Satyajit Ray. “God knows how many times I have watched all his films – I remember that there was a retrospective of Ray one summer at Lincoln Plaza [in New York City], and Aravind and I went there to watch his films one after the other,” Bahrani recalled. Even in Ray’s films, there is brilliant realism, but he also uses drama and fictional elements, in the way that Iranian directors do too.”
Bahrani attributes the “huge push in my artistic development as a person and an artist” to his Iranian heritage (he was born in North Carolina to Iranian parents) and the fact that he spent three years in Iran in the late 1990s and 2000s.
“If a project does not have social, political and philosophical aspects to it, I get bored,” he said. “Pure entertainment is good, but it does not interest me enough to work on.” He says he shares this interest in a layered perspective with Adiga’s novels and short stories – “You see this in every novel Aravind has ever written – they have deep meaning, and they are also entertaining.”
With Netflix as a producer, The White Tiger might travel more widely across the world than some of Bahrani’s previous films, which have been largely independently funded and showcased at festivals before being distributed in the United States of America.
“Funding is never easy in our business – look at the great filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Akira Kurosawa who have been banished because of funding problems,” Bahrani pointed out. “Robert Altman spent decades in England making stage plays because nobody would give him the money to make a film. It’s a very tough business, and it’s all about pushing and struggling. So it’s great that Netflix has come along and is helping filmmakers get things made.”
Why make films, then? “I can’t say – some of it is joyful and some of it is so painful. I don’t know why I do what I do in life. The real joy is to travel, meet people, learn from them. It’s amazing that people would be so gracious as to let me into their lives.”