The Netflix adaptation of Aravind Adiga's 2008 best-seller roars into the Oscar race in December.

By Mary Sollosi
October 15, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
Credit: Tejinder Singh Khamkha/NETFLIX

Long before Ramin Bahrani directed an adaptation of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, the book had his name all over it — specifically, on the very first page.

The 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel is dedicated to the acclaimed 99 Homes filmmaker; Bahrani and Adiga have been close friends since college, and often discuss their work. "I remember reading early versions of The White Tiger years before he finished it," says Bahrani, who has also thanked Adiga on most of his films. "I thought it was amazing. I always wanted to make a film of it. I'm grateful he trusted me to do it."

Set in contemporary India and shot entirely on location, the kinetic, darkly funny adaptation (bowing on Netflix in December) tells the epic tale of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a young man of low birth but high entrepreneurial instinct, as it were. He works his way up from toiling in a tea shop in his village to becoming a driver in Delhi for the wealthy Ashok (Rajkumar Rao), in whose world Balram is awakened to the cruelty and corruption of the unjust system in which he's been stuck his whole life — until he takes drastic steps to break free.

Credit: Tejinder Singh Khamkha/NETFLIX

Bahrani wasn't the book's only longtime fan. "It really, really affected me," says Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who was determined to be involved in the adaptation. The Bollywood superstar executive-produced the film (along with Ava DuVernay) and stars as Ashok's American wife, Pinky. "She comes in with this completely different perspective of life as it is in a developing country. That was really interesting for me to play, considering I'm an Indian," the actress says with a laugh. "In my work in the U.S., I haven't done a dramatic part like that. So that was very exciting to me."

Credit: Tejinder Singh Khamkha/NETFLIX

It's been more than a decade since both Bahrani and Chopra Jonas were first inspired by The White Tiger, but Balram's story couldn't be better suited to the current moment. "Aravind is always a step ahead," Bahrani says of his friend, before rattling off some of the timely social issues the book and movie address: "Wealth inequality, the power and abuses of the rich, ideas of caste, [and] we all understand now more than ever how fragile our healthcare system is…

"It's really about a man who just wants to be free, free to pursue the totality of his life," he continues. "I think that's something most of us understand now — a rigged system, chances that are denied, and the lengths we will go to make it in this world."


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