Until last month, few people knew the name Adarsh Gourav. The 26-year-old actor and musician had done a few films, notably Sridevi’s last project, Mom (2017), and Rukh (2017), in which he played Manoj Bajpayee’s anguished son.
Within Mumbai film circles, he was known as a fine actor but his presence barely registered beyond that. And then came The White Tiger, in which he plays the murderous, upwardly mobile driver Balram. Even critics who disliked the film have declared Adarsh a sensation, and with it being watched around the world on Netflix, the actor has become a bona fide star. Among other things, he’s won a best male lead nomination at the prestigious Film Independent Spirit Awards, facing off against the likes of Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) and the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
Overnight stardom is rarely overnight. Adarsh made his debut in 2010, playing a young Rizvan in the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer My Name is Khan. A student of Hindustani classical music, he started acting as a lark, but over the next decade, it became his calling. He’s done web series, commercials, short films and the occasional feature role too. He auditioned for The White Tiger thinking it might result in more auditions with leading casting director Tess Joseph (whose many accomplishments include finding Sunny Pawar to play a young Saroo Brierley in Lion).
He never imagined, Adarsh has said time and again, that he would get the role. Once he had, he spent months preparing to play Balram. He spent time in a village in Jharkhand. He posed as a migrant and worked at a tea stall in Delhi for a short while. (He quit because the tea stall owner wouldn’t give him time off and he had to attend meetings on the film.)
Once director Ramin Bahrani had confirmed him for the role, Adarsh also did readings with every actor who auditioned to play a character who interacts with Balram. When I asked him why this was necessary, he replied, “It was net practice before the actual match.” Tess told me she’d never seen another actor do this.
The rigour shows in his brilliant performance. As Balram, Adarsh is overtly servile and ingratiating but also devious and downright evil. Despite his dastardly deeds, we remain invested in him. I wouldn’t want to meet Balram in real life, but on screen, he’s charismatic company.
It’s thrilling to see actors like Adarsh soar. His success is based on talent and hard work. He is the first actor in his family. His path has not been eased by connections or his last name. There were several, more famous actors in the running for the role of Balram but Bahrani chose to go with a relatively unknown face because of his sheer, blazing artistry.
This is what makes the movies so exciting. It is as the fearsome food critic Anton Ego says in one of my favourite films, Ratatouille: “Not everyone can become a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Adarsh told me that he is currently learning Tamil and wants to learn Malayalam because he’s interested in working with directors from different film industries in India and abroad. He’s preparing himself for roles that he hasn’t got yet. I can’t wait to see what he does next.