Twenty-first-century movies have loved capitalism for the chaos. Think of the bedlam of The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short and its joyride into the 2008 financial crisis. But these tales of a system gone wild took place mostly in boardrooms and high-rise towers. To view things on the ground you need Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American filmmaker whose movies could be filed beside the hardback critiques of Thomas Piketty. The grind at its most precarious has been his muse for years — the market as experienced not by fund managers but coffee vendors on street corners, taxi drivers and construction workers. Cogs in the machine.
Now Bahrani is adding to their number Balram Halwai, loyal chauffeur turned cut-throat tycoon. Balram is the protagonist of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s sardonic novel of master and servant, winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, and adapted into the director’s next film. Epic and starry — the cast includes celebrated Indian actors Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao — it is the biggest film of a career that has earned Bahrani widespread respect, if not quite the name he deserves. As is now the norm, he will mark its release at home, inside his Brooklyn apartment. On Zoom he is lean and genial.
Post-production was under way last March when the pandemic hit New York. All but overnight, Bahrani’s team of editors scattered for flights home. “It got a little lonely,” he admits. At the same time, he says, his unfinished movie suddenly felt acutely of the moment. “With Covid, the inequality was right there. Visible. Inescapable. And Balram is inequality personified. He’s the Seamless delivery person bringing your meal, your Uber driver, the healthcare worker New York clapped for who couldn’t afford healthcare themselves.”
There is anger in his voice. In the film as well. But anger is not the whole story. “Will you let people know the movie is fun?” Bahrani asks. That much is simple. It is. While he admires veteran British social realist Ken Loach, The White Tiger also has the zip and swagger of Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas, he says, was an inspiration. “The rage was easy to tap in to,” Bahrani says. “But I also wanted to capture how funny Aravind’s book is. The sarcasm and satire and how playful it can be.”
The overlap between his world view and the novel makes it feel like Bahrani was fated to adapt it. Therein hangs a tale. If you own a copy of the book, you will find it is dedicated to the director. He and Adiga have been friends since the 1990s. They met as students at Columbia University, united by the power of stories and on the side of the economically excluded — the “invisible people”, Adiga says by email. Each planned to bring the two together. Bahrani got there first, releasing his first feature Man Push Cart, in 2005, a beautifully observed tale of a former Pakistani rock star selling coffee and doughnuts on a Manhattan sidewalk. Adiga says his friend’s “entrepreneurial zeal” became his blueprint. “When Ramin made Man Push Cart, he launched two careers, his and mine.”
Bahrani followed it with Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008), nuanced, humane stories of a Queens street kid and Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the director had grown up. Meanwhile, Adiga was sending him works in progress. “I have drafts of his novel going back to 2005 on the machine I’m talking to you on,” Bahrani says. Finally, one employed the droll, cynical first-person voice that so excited readers. “I thought, my God. If this doesn’t get published, we should both just quit.”
Balram escapes rural poverty by becoming a driver and de facto servant for a landlord’s family in a brutal, glittering Delhi. The result was harder and smarter than the Vikas Swarup novel Q&A it was often contrasted with, then newly adapted by Danny Boyle as Slumdog Millionaire. Similar comparisons have greeted Bahrani’s film. One critic has called it the “anti-Slumdog”. Bahrani smiles, tactful but candid. Boyle is a master stylist, he says. “Thematically, it just doesn’t suit me because I don’t enjoy fairy tales. The poor kid from the village never really wins a million dollars.”
Yet Slumdog did help begin a transformation. If Adiga caught the moment in which India and China first suggested a sunset for western dominance, the film industry in 2021 may have finally caught up. Bahrani’s new movie is funded by Netflix, working with Indian co-producers. An aspect of the streamer’s model that can go unnoticed is the collapse of old hierarchies of audience. The White Tiger is a movie made for America only inasmuch as it was also made for India — and Europe, the Middle East, Africa, everywhere. “Audiences are global,” Bahrani says. “And The White Tiger wasn’t cheap. There is no way a studio would have made it when the book came out. Now Netflix will hire an Iranian-American director to make a film of this scale about poor, brown-skinned people. Trust me, that is new.”
After Columbia, Bahrani travelled to Iran. He spent three years in the deep south of the country where his father had grown up. “That period was foundational. Coming back to the US, I felt like I had a mission.” Now he was set not just on making films, but films about capitalism. “This force that shapes lives but is never acknowledged as doing so.” Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo were made for $1.4m in total. “They were written that way. I didn’t want to have to wait for someone to open the door for me,” Bahrani says.
The rise of the gig economy only sharpened his focus. So, too, revolutions in tech. “Our phones have become a mobile sweatshop, a directory of servants,” Bahrani says. In 2014 came 99 Homes, a scalding account of a Florida real estate scam, starring Andrew Garfield. The state was riddled with foreclosures. Back in New York, Bahrani told friends that Donald Trump was about to win the presidency. “Everyone in Brooklyn called me an idiot. But it was obvious.”
The White Tiger demanded he venture still further from Brooklyn. He arrived in India ahead of the shoot, his first visit to the country taken under Adiga’s guidance, travelling for research on foot or by bus rather than air-conditioned car. In Delhi, he spoke with indentured drivers in their grimy living quarters under gleaming apartment blocks. Did they share Balram’s scathing take on socio-economics? Bahrani twinkles slightly: “Absolutely.”
Aside from his friendship with Adiga, Bahrani felt another connection with India. “Balram’s childhood village reminds me so much of the places my dad came from. There were cultural nuances, of course, but endless similarities. No electricity. Attitudes to money. To family.” On screen, alongside Chopra and Rao, the prize role of Balram went to unknown Adarsh Gourav. “A lot of Indian and diaspora actors with famous names wanted to play Balram, but I wanted someone who wasn’t a star or from a wealthy background. And Adarsh was great.”
Bahrani demurs when I ask what he sees in India’s future. The country is too complex, he says, for a non-Indian from Brooklyn to comment. Adiga emails his answer. His novel, he says, was a product of the bold, transgressive “new India” as much as a critique of it. Now, the economy is creaking. “Even more troublingly,” Adiga writes, “freedom of expression is under threat. For me there is now something elegiac in The White Tiger.”
In New York, Bahrani considers the strangeness of the moment — his career never better, the world in flames. He is cautious about the Biden presidency. “Last time, the Democrats did next to nothing for working-class America.” Covid will, he says, only make more Balrams. “The gig economy is going to drag in a whole new set of people. And I can’t say I’m an optimist. I’ve never been that person. But we’re going to need optimism to get through what’s coming.”
‘The White Tiger’ is on Netflix from January 22
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