By Mary Sollosi
January 04, 2021 at 02:12 PM EST
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Credit: Netflix

The rarest animal in the jungle, which comes along once in a generation, is the creature that gives The White Tiger its title. So says the film's protagonist, Balram Halwai, who was told something similar as a child — he's the rarest of boys, destined for greatness.

So how was writer-director Ramin Bahrani, who adapted the Netflix epic from Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, to find a star worthy of this exceptional hero? "I had opportunities to cast famous Bollywood actors that I love, that I admire," the 99 Homes filmmaker admits. But Adarsh Gourav, a lesser-known 26-year-old actor with but a handful of Indian credits on his résumé, "just blew us away.... This kid is incredible. He's so immediately charming and empathetic."

As Balram, he needs to be. Bahrani's vital, deeply ironic tale of modern India sees its young hero navigate a fraught path from servant to master; he goes from living in a small village, desperately poor and working in a tea shop, to being a driver in Delhi for a rich couple (executive producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Bollywood star Rajkummar Rao) whose wealth and shamelessness open his eyes to the rigged system of which he's always been a victim — until he decides not to be. Claiming one's own destiny can be dirty work, but he's a tiger, not a butterfly.

Credit: Illustration by Fahmida Azim for EW

Gourav had read the best-seller — which he remembers as being ubiquitous in India — as a teenager, but as he went through multiple rounds of auditions to star in the adaptation, "I just tried to remain as calm as possible," he tells EW on a call from Mumbai. His cool paid off, earning him what could be the role of a lifetime. Despite appearing in almost every one of the film's 126 thrilling minutes, "I never thought about it as a huge responsibility, to be honest with you," Gourav says. "I just wanted to make sure that I made 100 percent use of this opportunity."

A working actor since he was a teenager, Gourav has had a passion for storytelling much longer. “As a child, I was sort of a compulsive liar,” he admits with a laugh. “I would just keep making up these stories to my friends and to my parents, and I realized the power in this medium of being able to tell stories and convince people about something that's not real by selling it to them as something that was real.” Telling the biggest story of his career (so far) with The White Tiger, he found a champion and close collaborator in Bahrani, whom he calls "a genius" and credits with having given him ample time and freedom to create the dynamic character for himself: "I just had to understand Balram, and then just be true to him."

That process of discovery began long before shooting did. First, Gourav stayed in a village in eastern India for two weeks under a false identity "just to understand how people in villages spoke, the way they talked about people who came from cities." Next, he headed to Delhi, where he worked in a food stall while using yet another name — Balram. "The point was to understand how Balram felt when he was in the village, when he was working at the tea shop, when he constantly felt stuck. The idea was to do something that I absolutely hated. And I hated every second!" says Gourav, who adds that his weeks of research “humbled me completely” as well as having prepared him for the role. "That's the feeling that I wanted to attain, the feeling of being invisible to people."

He's bound to feel the opposite when the movie, which may just figure in 2021's Oscar race, arrives on Netflix (Jan. 22) following a limited theatrical release. "It's a difficult journey, because [Balram] does something very immoral. And we're asked not to agree, but to empathize with what he does," Bahrani says. "[Adarsh] pulls us on that journey." It's a trip well worth taking.

The White Tiger lands in select theaters Friday and hits Netflix Jan. 22. Check out the latest trailer above.

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