Ramin Bahrani

Today, Netflix releases the latest from writer/director Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger, an adaptation of Indian author Aravind Adiga’s debut novel about the rise of Balram (Adarsh Gourav) from a coal breaker’s son to driven entrepreneur.

Told in flashback and at a breakneck pace, The White Tiger is Bahrani’s Goodfellas with a touch of The Wolf of Wall Street sprinkled in. But unlike those two, White Tiger is less about the fun of getting what you want and more about the misery that comes with taking what’s owed. And where Scorsese’s movies were about the intoxication of wealth, The White Tiger is more about the crushing presence of poverty.

Rajkummar Rao as Ashok, Priyanka Chopra as Pinky Madam, Adarsh Gourav as Balram in White Tiger. Photos courtesy Tejinder Singh Khamkha/NETFLIX

That feels relatively inline with Bahrani’s initial output: Man Push Cart (2006), Chop Shop (2008), and Goodbye Solo (2009). All three were set in America and featured people on the margins of society. In 2012, Bahrani turned to the Heartland for At Any Price, and in 2014, Bahrani went south to tackle the housing credit crisis in 99 Homes.

But while those five all feel of a piece, and from a singular voice, The White Tiger feels anonymous. With rapid-fire editing, first-person narration, and characters lacking a moral North Star, White Tiger feels cynical in ways Bahrani’s previous efforts did not. Those movies were quiet, empathetic portraits of people finding ways to get by. In 2015, I had a chance to speak with Bahrani ahead of his visit to CU-Boulder’s International Film Series back in 2015. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 26, “The sound of a true American voice.”

Ten years ago, at the Sundance Film Festival, a new voice in American cinema was announced. The voice was not loud, but it was clear, and it belonged to the 29-year-old Ramin Bahrani.

Bahrani’s feature debut, Man Push Cart, is a calm and contemplative study of a Pakistani immigrant making his way in New York City as a pushcart vendor. The movie wasn’t a smash hit, but it attracted enough attention for Bahrani to continue making his own unique brand of movies: Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), At Any Price (2012), and the soon-to-be-released 99 Homes, which played this year’s Sundance.

Bahrani is more than just a filmmaker; he also teaches film directing at Columbia University’s graduate program in New York City. And he will be on hand Feb. 3 at the International Film Series, his visit sponsored by Conference on World Affairs Athenaeum and Roser Visiting Artist Program. He’ll be here to share his knowledge in conjunction with a screening of his short films and Chop Shop. If you have any interest in movies or a desire to make them yourself, then this is not an event to miss.

Bahrani on the set of 99 Homes.

Bahrani’s career in movies began like most do, in that impressionable age between high school senior and a college freshman.

“I decided to try and become a filmmaker instead of a novelist,” Bahrani says. “I think the decision was made after making my first short film [Backgammon, 1998], realizing how hard it was and wanting to do it again.”

In college, Bahrani says he was guided by many key movies that helped shape the way he looked through the lens and into the world. Stanley Kubrick’s films taught him “imagination and intellect”; Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, “to be philosophical”; Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, to be “inner and social”; Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? “to be simple”; and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, “to make personal films.”

Chop Shop. Image courtesy The Criterion Collection.

These few examples serve as a bibliography to Bahrani’s work and place his movies in context. Referencing Kubrick and Antonioni brings to mind Bahrani’s use of meticulous composition. His movies have style, but not the kind that suffocates moments of spontaneity or performance, where his movies are the most moving. Bahrani works closely with his actors (often non-professionals) in real locations modeled after real situations, which help him draw out intrinsic human qualities.

“Location adds life and forces improvisation. It also adds specificity and detail. But only if you open yourself to location and its mysteries,” Bahrani says. “It’s one of the keys for me. I don’t like to shoot a scene if the location doesn’t speak to me, and I spend a lot of time searching for locations and rewriting the script accordingly.”

Man Push Cart. Image courtesy The Criterion Collection.