If you’ve been recently stalking the Netflix homepage for the latest trending original movie, you have probably come across “The White Tiger.” You might’ve been fooled by its seemingly carefree opening scene, in which a Jay-Z song blasts through a car’s speaker as Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) drives through Delhi’s streets at night without abandon. She’s laughing with her husband, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and their servant, Balram (Adarsh Gourav). But within a matter of minutes, you realize something must be wrong.
The scene is a harbinger for all the twists and turns to come in the dramedy, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani and based on Aravind Adiga’s best-selling 2008 novel.
Although the story line itself is quite male-dominated — it is, after all, the narrative of an Indian man’s journey from poverty to becoming the chauffeur for a rich family — Chopra Jonas is a powerful and outspoken character within the film. She is also credited as an executive producer, along with Ava DuVernay. The two are powerhouses in Hollywood in their own right: DuVernay, as the award-winning Black female director of movies including “Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “When They See Us,” and Chopra Jonas as an award-winning Indian actress, producer and philanthropist.
We recently listened in to a phone call between the two women, in which they discussed everything from the history-making nature of the movie’s Indian cast to the conversation it opens up about socioeconomic divides.
We’ll let the two of them take it away.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: Well, I don’t mind starting this, because I am such an admirer of your work and I was so excited when you came on board with this project, because I was like, “Holy s---, this is a woman that I want to be like.” You’re self-made, you created this empire of just amazing storytelling and also empowered yourself to be who you are — so thank you. Thank you for being the woman that you are.
Ava DuVernay: So kind of you and so gracious, and that’s really what I know of you. This whole process from beginning to end has been a pure pleasure, but your involvement was one of the things that really attracted me to it. I’ve admired you from afar for so long, and really seen in the way that a lot of my friends who are actors — we have to work hard to break out of the preconceived notions of who they are and what they can do. Expectations are sometimes limited, sometimes outsized. You know, it’s hard to navigate, and you’ve done it with real grace and grit and gusto. And so I applaud you for that.
Maybe we can both talk about our work within the film. The executive producer title is a beautiful catchall within the film industry. It can denote different kinds of responsibilities and duties and involvement in the project. And I feel like, you know, your EP piece of it was really the beginning, and mine was toward the end. I came in to get the film through [postproduction] and the marketing and the distribution. And you were there at the very, very beginning, the heavy-lifting of the development, the creative.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: I think we were different bookends to the movie. And the movie kind of lived within that.
Ava DuVernay: And you did double duty, both as the EP and also one of the trifecta of actors in the film. And so many people have been hitting me up after watching the film —
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: Oh my gosh, me too. So many people from so many countries. It’s incredible to see an all-brown cast be a No. 1 worldwide movie on one of the largest streaming services in the world. I mean, it blew my mind. It’s so historic in my head. I had goose bumps thinking that that was even a possibility. I’m so proud of it.
Ava DuVernay: You should be. I was just on the phone with some folks from Netflix, and we had this conversation, that “White Tiger” is the No. 1 film globally on Netflix for the fifth day in a row. This was a film about servitude and caste and class, and it’s not easy subject matter. It has a tone that kind of switches in the middle, and you think you’re watching one thing, and you’re watching something else. And people are really riding with it.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: I think that’s such a testament to where the world is right now, that people are willing to have a sense of self-reflection. They’re willing to go to somewhere uncomfortable to recognize the larger truth. They’re willing to educate themselves about things that they didn’t know. And this movie that is based in India is basically a reflection of the socioeconomic divide that is so large right now, the haves and the have-nots.
Especially for people who live in privilege of having a roof over their heads and being able to have meals and send their kids to school — we don’t even think about how desensitized we are to this, that a huge majority of the population lives under really dire circumstances. I love that this movie has created a conversation, or people have embraced it so well because they want to be better. And I would love to believe that’s the direction humanity is going in.
Ava DuVernay: The beautiful thing about “The White Tiger” is that people don’t know what they’re going to get in this movie, and they get more than they bargained for. That’s what I keep hearing.
I think one of the things that remains and what a great writer and director does so beautifully is allowed Balram [the main character] to walk that tightrope of moral ambiguity. How far does he tip over into the dark side before you do not empathize and you don’t see yourself in him?
How did you all balance that on set? With Pinky, too, she walks on this thin line that you were able to manage with her, like, is she good or is she not good? Does she really care? How’d you do that?
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: I think the one thing that we knew when we were reading the movie — and I read the book many years ago and I was a fan of the book, because Aravind’s writing just gets under your skin — but on set, I think the one thing that we knew was we’re not playing black or white characters. This is the narrative of Balram. We’re not just looking at him, but rather this is him looking at each one of us, which is why we have the voice-over, going into his mind, showing each character from his perspective. So we all knew that we were walking that tightrope, because that’s just the tone of the movie.
Ava DuVernay: We would be remiss without talking about Adarsh [who plays Balram in the movie]. It was similar to my experience in making “When They See Us,” where I had all of these young actors whom no one knew and who stepped up to the moment. We have so many people who want to be the star, who want to be the lead, who want to sing the song. And when their moment comes, you have to have done the work and have the commitment and the emotional scaffolding to be ready.
What was it like watching it unfold in front of you?
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: I was cast before a lot of the others were cast. There was a lot of conversation and there were a lot of big names in the hat to play Balram’s character. But Ramin [the writer-director] just kept going back to Adarsh. And when Adarsh had a callback, I think for the third or fourth time, he had this crazy immersive experience. He went to a village for two weeks undercover and he didn’t tell anyone he was an actor and just lived in the circumstances Balram would’ve lived. He walked those shoes and got a job in a stall where he was cleaning and grooming and washing dishes. He did all of that stuff before he even got the movie. He was Balram.
I really hope that his commitment gets that kind of attention you’re talking about.
Ava DuVernay: You see a performance like that and you think of the power of Netflix and you see that it is trending in two dozen countries around the world. You think of how many eyeballs are feasting on all of your performances. It just makes you proud.
It’s astonishing that stories of brown people and Black people, stories about class and culture and the conflict that is within all of it, now has this global platform where we can all experience it in our own language at the same time and have a global conversation about it.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: It’s amazing, because I’ve heard this, I’m sure you’ve heard, but we were told that brown and Black people don’t really work internationally as leading parts, especially as a whole cast. And now to be able to see this and see the evolution of opportunity within entertainment around the world because of streaming — it’s given the ability for so many different kinds of stories, so many different kinds of people in those stories, so many different cultures being represented. I think it’s such a great time for young filmmakers, or for people who want to be filmmakers.
Ava DuVernay: It was one of the things that we always knew was true, but was hard to calculate or to prove. But these numbers show that that was always a myth. The sad thing is how many generations of people who bought into it and didn’t pursue the dream because they were told, “Oh, don’t do that, that won’t work.”
But I’m so proud you brought up that myth, that Black and brown doesn’t play overseas, and that people aren’t interested in our story and the interiority of our lives.
That was all a lie. When we put it in that context, this film represents much more than even the film on its face. It’s really opening up a whole new whole world of possibilities with a cast of this kind, driving these kinds of viewership numbers.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: I can’t even imagine this movie getting this kind of a budget five years ago, with a full Indian cast, an Iranian director, shot in India. It took Netflix to believe that a global story could have that power. I’m so glad that I could be at the precipice of this change, because literally five years ago, when I started looking for work within America, I experienced being told that getting lead parts is very hard internationally with brown and Black people.
I’m so glad to be at the helm of one of the first — I have tears in my eyes when I talk about it, especially because it took a lot of breaking down doors for me to get the opportunity that I did. I hope the next generation of actors never have to hear that.
Ava DuVernay: Amen, my friend, amen. I just want to tip my hat to you because, you know, your graciousness — you’re a massive global star, but to have the foresight and the fortitude to say, “I’m going to support this lead role. I’m going to lend my name to make sure that this gets made and done and is treated with weight and is amplified.” You’ve been nonstop advocating for this movie and all that it means, and not sitting on your laurels, but rolling up your sleeves. It’s been gorgeous to watch and it’s only heightened my respect for you and my high regard. I look forward to continuing to watch you shine.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: Thank you, Ava, for bringing your name to this, you brought so much attention and you have such an incredible power within the industry and you got those eyes. I’m a fan, so please, can we work together again?