On A Global Scale: Ramin Bahrani and ‘The White Tiger’

Felix Van Kann
February 26, 2022

On A Global Scale is a bi-weekly series about international co-productions by Columbia filmmakers.

Welcome to another edition of On A Global Scale. This bi-weekly series celebrates the international spirit of the Columbia University Film Program and the incredible global collaborations coming out of it.

Associate Professor Ramin Bahrani (CC ’96) met author Aravind Adiga (CC '97) when they were both students at Columbia University. “I studied film theory as an undergraduate here,” remembers Bahrani who went on to become a distinguished and award-winning director as well as Concentration Head of the School of Arts’ Directing Program. Meanwhile, Adiga became a Man Booker prize winning novelist, but their paths were always connected.  “Aravind has been very influential on my career and my life. He’s extremely well read and has deep insights into the world. He’s been to so many countries, so many different places. He’s one of the people I always show my projects to and get feedback from.”

Bahrani recently adapted Adiga’s 2008 New York Times bestselling novel The White Tiger into his newest feature of the same name.  

Written, directed and produced by Bahrani, the film follows the ambitious Indian driver Balram who uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty and rise to the top. “I’ve been reading drafts of the novel since 2004,” Bahrani says. “I was blown away by the story right off the bat. Even in its rough form, it was quite electric. So, I knew it very well and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I read it so many times over 15 years. When the time to make the film came around I felt pretty ready to make it.”

Bahrani grew up in North Carolina, initially his interest was in literature over film. “My family wasn’t a movie family,” Bahrani says. But one day, that changed. “In high school I had a teacher who started to show us movies, typically American films from the ’70s. He talked about them as if they were something serious that could be discussed like one would discuss a book. I became intrigued with movies at that point.”

Whether it be film or literature, though, what comes first for Bahrani is character. And the protagonist of The White Tiger, Balram, was the kind of unique lead that drew him in. “His journey from low class and poverty in India to becoming a successful entrepreneur is so unusual and the way Aravind had written it was so powerful,” Bahrani says. “The character was full of observations that were very unique and filled with a sense of humor and sarcasm. Just such a complex character that I thought could be great for a movie.” In fact, Balram is a character who is very much in line with those Bahrani explores in all of his projects. “In general, the movies I make focus on characters that are not usually shown in films. Unseen and unheard voices, often immigrant characters or underdog or working class people.”

With his eyes set on adapting the book, Bahrani started to write the screenplay—a new challenge because it was not just any adaptation, but also the work of a close friend. “Aravind said from the very beginning that novels and screenplays are two totally different types of things. It was actually the first time that he didn’t read one of my screenplays. He said: ‘Do whatever you want, this is yours.’ It was very freeing of him to say that. I hope I got the tone of the novel right.”

The adaptation came with its own challenges. “It’s a first-person narration, thus you don’t get anyone else’s perspective,” Bahrani says. “You just know and understand what Balram thinks, but he’s an unreliable narrator. I had to develop the other characters from a different angle. I had to talk to the actors and give them backstories and other motivations for their characters outside of what Balram thinks of them. These things had to be added. The rest of the time I tried to stay true to the book and kept a lot of the brilliant dialogue in there.”

Bahrani also added some structural changes. “The novel announces a major reveal at the end of the first chapter. I don’t reveal this until it actually happens. One of the pivotal scenes in the middle of the film is a hit and run scene. I opened the movie with part of that scene. This creates a different kind of atmosphere in the beginning and misguides the audience into wondering what Balram had done and what it had to do with that accident.”

Once the script was in the right shape it was time for Bahrani to go to India to scout locations—and the film has a lot of them! Once again, Bahrani could rely on advice from his friend Adiga. “Aravind suggested that when I go to India I should try to see the locations by foot. To walk around and not just be in the car. Experience the locations like the character Balram would.” This connection to the locations added to Bahrani’s intention to use his environment to add to the bigger picture. “Instead of controlling, we would shoot in life environments. We’d put the main actor in a busy street and see what happens. This generated great results, I think.”

One of Bahrani’s favorite scenes from the film was born from one of these exercises. “I really loved this moment in the movie when Balram is in a bad state of mind and a beggar woman comes and asks him for money. He starts to shout at her. That was done in a life environment in Old Delhi. That location, its feeling, its chaos, its energy, these masses of people and just one actor thrown in there. To me, it was very powerful, something I will never forget.”

There were other aspects of the book Bahrani aimed to hold onto: “There’s something fun about the novel, it’s enjoyable and humorous despite its hard subject matter. I wanted the same kind of feeling for the movie, too and so I tried to create that feeling on set. More than during most other movies I made, I felt looser and freer.”

Bahrani also put great emphasis on the recruitment of his crew to almost exclusively consist of local Indian workers. “It was a deliberate decision. I knew the Cinematographer, the Camera OP and the Production Designer beforehand. Everybody else I didn’t know. I think it’s a great mix because you have a few people you have a shorthand with, a relationship. And the people you don’t know you’re learning from as you get to know them. You bring in their opinions and creativity and that always generates new ways of thinking about the project. It helped the film’s authenticity to bring these great artists and craftsmen together.”

The result of this is an award-winning film. It was released on Netflix to much acclaim, and listed among the screening platform’s top ten around the world. It was number one in 64 countries and seen by 27 million in less than a month. It was also recently longlisted for seven BAFTA Awards and got Bahrani a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the WGA Awards. The actor, Adarsh Gourav, got an Independent Spirit Award nomination as well. The film has garnered so much success in such a short period that it’s no doubt got everyone wondering: What will Bahrani do next? Much to our delight, he’s working on yet another adaptation of his friend Aravind Adiga’s novels, Amnesty, with Netflix. A friendship that has started at Columbia and still remains the source of great collaborations across artistic and cultural borders.

It is this kind of spirit Bahrani also advocates in his classroom at Columbia. “One of the benefits of teaching at Columbia is the diversity of the student body,” Bahrani says. “I have students from all over; China, Taiwan, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Peru, Iran. Everyone brings a different perspective, a unique voice and a different set of ideas to the classroom. They come with new movie references, so we learn about kinds of cinemas we didn’t know about before. Bringing them together around a common language of storytelling and camera and image is very beneficial for me as a filmmaker.” Bahrani adds: “The classroom always comes to the set with me somehow. A conversation with a student, looking at movies and talking about it. It always follows me, no doubt about it.”

Still from The White Tiger, by Professor Ramin Bahrani