"You've become so tall!” well-meaning relatives would say while Adarsh Gourav was growing up — only not to him. “Even when I did get taller, it was so insignificant that no one really noticed,” the 26-year-old actor confesses, between chuckles. View him like the runt of the litter and you’d be guilty of myopia. Pitched against cinematic giants like Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh towers over The White Tiger — Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of the award-winning book by Aravind Adiga.
The evolution of Adiga’s Balram Halwai — Adarsh’s character — makes for fascinating viewing. Caged and conditioned by generations of servitude, a young village bumpkin escapes the shackles of a job he detests, to move up in the world as a chauffeur for an influential landlord. Old habits die hard and servitude continues to define Balram’s choices — until fate and fortitude play their hand. Set against the backdrop of a nation proudly shedding its history of casteism and poverty, Balram describes himself as the face of “tomorrow.”
The latter, without a doubt, is true of Adarsh too. Like the stunning white tiger, one can’t help but wonder if Gourav is the creature who gets born only once in every generation — an awe-inspiring anomaly; destined for great things.
From an early age, it was apparent that Adarsh had skills. Trained in classical music, his family believed he might achieve success as a playback singer. It was part of the reason why they relocated from Jamshedpur to Mumbai when Adarsh was in the eighth grade. “My father did move around for work a fair bit but my mother and I usually stayed in Jamshedpur, irrespective of my father’s postings. When the Mumbai transfer with Central Bank of India came through, we spent a few days discussing it as a family and decided we’d all move. It would be better for my father’s career and for mine as well,” Adarsh recalls.
By this time, Adarsh had already appeared on Jharkhand Idol and a nationally televised contest along similar lines seemed like a possible launch pad that would be more accessible in Mumbai. Singing, however, was not his only talent. “I used to love to lie and make up stories. A lot of kids do that — I know I wasn’t an exception in that sense — but I think I enjoyed lying a little more than other kids, I guess. I enjoyed seeing how people can be easily manipulated if you believe in your truth, which is actually not true. And I did make up a lot of stories in those days, one of which was that I am going to shift to Bangalore or Mumbai when it was an absolute fabrication, with no possibility of that really happening.” As fate would have it, the fabrication manifested into an actual move and Adarsh enrolled at Suresh Wadkar’s Ajivasan Music Academy soon after landing in Mumbai.
Under the tutelage of Padma Wadkar, Adarsh began to convert his potential into palpable prospects. “Padmaji gave me the opportunity to sing in two films: one was Subhash Ghai’s Black & White and the other was Chal Chalein, which had music by the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. She also helped me get in touch with Raell Padamsee, who cast me as a singer in her production, Freedom,” says Adarsh. “I would come in and sing Vande Mataram at the end of each show,” he recounts. Seven or eight shows into it, Raell recommended Adarsh for a performance at the Kala Ghoda Festival. It was there that Nazli Currimbhoy planted the idea of acting as a career. “Nazli used to manage Raell Padamsee’s work and she asked me if I had any interest in acting. That’s where the story started.”
Once the thought germinated, it became a mission. “After that day, I started going for auditions with my mother on weekends,” says Adarsh.
It was a while before those weekend jaunts actually converted into work but when casting director Shanoo Sharma was looking for an actor to play a young Shah Rukh in My Name Is Khan (2010), Adarsh landed the role. “I had actually tried for Hero Honda Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2005 and that was the first time I appeared on television. When I wasn’t allowed to enter the audition area because I was too young to audition, I threw a fit. I had a flair for drama — I was a rather melodramatic child — and so I started crying. The cameras came and covered me and then they used to play that clip at the beginning of each episode, so my real debut was as a crying kid in a red T-shirt on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa.”
Paved not with tears but certainly with trials and tribulations, the road to stardom continued to be arduous for Adarsh. Bit parts came his way and, after wrapping up work on Atanu Mukherjee’s Rukh (2017), Adarsh decided he needed some form of actual acting training and mentorship. Rukh co-star Manoj Bajpayee suggested signing up for The National School of Drama (NSD), but Adarsh didn’t quite meet their criteria. “Besides, I didn’t want to make a three-year commitment,” the actor explains, adding, “Things abroad were too expensive and I couldn’t afford anything, so I finally chose Drama School Mumbai. I got a scholarship and my mum helped me with funding the rest. It was so important for me — I unlearnt everything I had learnt before, learnt what I had to at Drama School, and then unlearnt it all again to get back to work.”
Another milestone was landing a lead role in Banana — produced by John Abraham, co-starring Sanjana Sanghi and Rohit Saraf, and directed by Sajid Ali. The film was never released, but it was momentous for Adarsh nonetheless. “That was the first time that I realised what it is to think and walk and talk like a different person. I was playing somebody who was so far removed from what I am. That experience was very cathartic,” he recalls. “Disappointed” but not “heartbroken” by the film being shelved, Adarsh kept himself busy. “I was studying. I was in a band. I had so many friends to distract me. Maybe if I was done with college and I was solely focussed on the film releasing, it would have hit me more than it actually did. But these things happen. You have to cope and move on.”
Adapting and evolving appear to be key themes for Adarsh. An extrovert as a child, he suffered from social anxiety as a young adult. “I made a conscious lifestyle choice last year and since then I have been getting better and better,” he says with candour. “I used the lockdown to hone several skills. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I’ve been a vocalist for two different bands — I used to write for my band, I used to compose as well, but I couldn’t play an instrument. I’d just had enough of being dependent on other people as a musician. This was my fifth attempt to learn the guitar — I have failed four times prior to this. As with any instrument, the initial two months are the toughest. It takes a lot of patience and a sustained effort to work at it every single day. I have never had that kind of patience before, but during the lockdown I was operating on a very, very tight (self-regulated) schedule. I was doing my vocal riyaz and my accent training. When the lockdown began, I told myself that this is going to be a very tough period, so I can either be in my head all the time and make plans, or let my body do the work and think a little less. By nature, by personality, I am a thinker — and I don’t like that about myself. I want to exist more in my body than in my head, so I made a very conscious effort to cultivate this during the lockdown.”
Despite being longlisted for a BAFTA in the Leading Actor category, Adarsh refuses to count his proverbial chickens. He insists he hasn’t experienced ‘fame’ thus far and needs to work at establishing himself as a performer. He has a long wish list of Indian filmmakers he’d like to work with — particularly endearing because this isn’t a dream he plucks out of thin air; he actually reads these names off a written list like one would an Udipi menu or, perhaps more appropriately in his case, a thank you speech at a film awards ceremony.
He doesn’t own a car, doesn’t see why taking an auto rickshaw to and from work is an issue and doesn’t believe being mobbed is “realistic.” He goes fan-boy while recounting his first brush with celebrity bashes — Anurag Kashyap’s Holi party in 2015 — because this is where he encountered “the incredible” Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He checks his Instagram DMs for possible job opportunities. He’s an obsessive cricket fan. He doesn’t watch television and has stopped subscribing to newspapers. He confesses — not without hesitation — that he is dating, but isn’t sure if the relationship will be one he puts on public display.
This is the prologue to the story that is Adarsh Gourav. Already you can tell it’s a real page-turner. Other compelling chapters lie ahead, no doubt, because this one is destined to be a best-seller.
ON HIS ACTING ASPIRATIONS, PREPPING FOR THE WHITE TIGER AND BEING BALRAM
Destiny, not chance: “My life has been a bizarre string of weird coincidences… When I was in the sixth grade, a newspaper reporter had come to my house. She used to do columns about children who were participating in contests and stuff, and she asked me a bunch of questions. Her last question was, ‘Adarsh, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and for some strange reason, I said I want to be an actor. I went and showed the paper clipping to everybody in school and no one could understand why I’d said I wanted to be an actor when it was clear that I was training to be a singer. People ribbed me about it for ages and, to date, I have no idea why I said that!”
Getting into character: “I worked at a food stall for two weeks while I prepped for The White Tiger. Why didn’t I quit at the end of the first week? Because I wanted to hate it the way Balram hated it. To feel stuck the way he did. I had started dressing like Balram. I wouldn’t bathe for four or five days at a stretch. I had grown my hair and stopped shaving. My walk had changed. It was such an interesting experience — to be perceived as Balram, when I knew I was Adarsh. I signed the first `100 I earned at the tea stall and put in my wallet as a keepsake. To remind me of how grateful I am for the opportunity to do what I do.”
The Balram hangover: “I still have residual traits of Balram. Even now, when I sit in a friend’s car, I run to open the door for whoever is sitting in the backseat. People think that it is chivalry, but it isn’t. It’s what Balram used to do and that’s why I do it.
That’s where I learnt it. Every character you become becomes a part of you. It gives you something and it takes something from you. I don’t know what Balram took from me, but he has given me a lot.”
THE EARLY YEARS
The support of family has led Adarsh to this moment in time, where headlining a film with Priyanka Chopra is a reality
The family man: “No one in my family has ever aspired to be an actor. My father trained in Carnatic music as a kid. My paternal grandmother was a very good singer and a published Telugu poet. My father worked in a bank; he retired last year. My mum still works with New India Assurance. My brother works at Standard Chartered Bank.”
Not quite a scholar: “Both my parents were very academically brilliant. My father is an MSc in Chemistry and my mother used to score full marks in Mathematics. They must have wondered for some time how they ended up with my brother and me for kids. One who is smart and doesn’t study and the other who can’t score well enough if he studies (laughs). I have never been in the Top 10 in my class at any point in my life.”
Freedom of choice: “My parents never forced me to do anything. There was no pressure. When I wanted to drop Science as a subject in Grade 9, no one prevented me from doing so. I feel very fortunate to have been given the freedom to explore my own choices. My parents have evolved so much with my brother and I. As we have grown, they have become more broadminded, more liberal, more accepting — it’s truly amazing. They have allowed us to fail and take chances in life.”
One for the road: “My dad bought a Tata Indigo back in the day. It was a pista green colour that I didn’t like — and then it became the colour of the Meru Cabs fleet. Whenever I used to take it for a spin, people thought I was driving a cab — I must have been 19 at the time — so then I stopped driving it out of embarrassment. My father eventually sold that car for Rs10,000 because nobody wanted to drive it!”
Styling: Who Wore What When (Pranay Jaitley and Shounak Monkar)
Hair styling: Aamir Shaikh from Jeanclaudebiguineindia
Also read: Vikrant Massey: The man on the move