Adarsh Gourav started his career as the younger Rizwan in Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan (2010), alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol (Khan essayed the older Rizwan). It was, however, the role of Balram Halwai in The White Tiger (2020), a Netflix film produced by Priyanka Chopra, and based on Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name — which he took up after attending acting school — that helped him dig a niche which he settled into. Gourav’s Balram harbours within him a bubbling rage that is always on the verge of leaking when he is not paying obeisance to his employers, and eventually, culminates into a cold-blooded murder. The performance earned him nods from BAFTA and the Independent Spirit Awards, and cemented his status as a breakout star.
The year 2023 was a phenomenal year for the actor. We saw him in an Apple TV+ anthology series Extrapolations, a star-studded venture about the climate crisis, which also included Meryl Streep, Kit Harington, Sienna Miller and Gemma Chan. Gourav played a Mumbai-based smuggler in the fifth episode ‘2059 Part II: Nightbirds’, which was directed by Richie Mehta of Delhi Crime (2019) fame. He was also cast in Raj and DK’s Netflix comic thriller series Guns & Gulaabs, where he played a trans woman, Jugnu — the character is constantly berated by their gangster father through the length of the show, and Gourav lent the character an appropriate amount of festering frustration and scorching vulnerability.
Most recently, Gourav starred alongside Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi in Netflix’s Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, which was produced by Tiger Baby and Excel Entertainment Productions. In the film, he played Neil Pereira, a constantly feeling-out-of-place gym trainer who is obsessed with his social media following. Gourav dexterously contextualises Neil’s bouts of insecurity and hollow vanity, both of which resonate with a click. The movie, directed by Arjun Varain Singh, grapples with digital loneliness, is being dubbed as the Dil Chahta Hai (2001) of this generation.
Despite an unreliable wifi and a phone battery on life support, Gourav amicably made time to chat with Film Companion about his creative process, his paranoia about the quality of veggies he buys from the market, and shared a theory on why he believes his character from Guns & Gulaabs might have idolised the legendary Rekha and Sridevi.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
Your physical transformation video on Instagram is making waves. Is a physical transformation harder than an emotional/psychological one?
In this case, it was a physical transformation, because I already related a lot to Neil Pereira psychologically. I think I went through a lot of those insecurities — feeling out-of-place and inadequate. When I moved to Mumbai in 2007, I was only 14, and I was projecting my insecurities on my parents, just like Neil was doing it with his parents. I've always been fit, and I've been an athlete all my life. But to have the obsessive kind of discipline that it took to reach where I had to was insane. It drove me nuts. I was living almost like a monk for one and a half years.
I feel like it really helped — I was working out regularly, and I was doing callisthenics, not just lifting weights — because I was doing a lot of skill work so regularly that it almost became second nature. We had to do training scenes in the film, and there are quite a few of them, right? I'm training Malaika Arora, and I have a couple of other clients. I feel like those scenes became very easy. I didn't have to plan them. I didn't have to think about what I'm doing because I was already working out myself. I was also working out with Robin Behl for one year, he was my trainer. I was observing how Robin speaks to people, how he conducts himself in a gym and how he is with his clients. I picked up a lot from there as well.
You spoke about being similar to your character in Kho Gaye Hum Kahan. Do you relate to your character in terms of his relationship with social media, especially as a celebrity?
I mean, I can't deny the fact that validation is important for me. Even now when I post things, I check on the numbers that I'm getting on the post. I think a part of it is also because I'm using social media for two things: Firstly, for music; and secondly, for getting brand collaborations to make supplemental income on the side to run my house. Numbers at this point in time are important to me. Brand collaborations happen only when you have significant numbers.
I mean, I'm not probably as obsessive as Neil about my numbers and about how deeply I feel about it. But, I can definitely relate to that.
Do you think being a part of this film has made you more conscious regarding what you post online?
There are certain things that are definitely like a reminder of sorts. For example, when I was doing the film and when we discussed the last scene where all of us put our phones in the bowl before we start dancing and enjoying ourselves? That's definitely something that I have actually started implementing. When I go out for dinner with my girlfriend, we have decided to keep our phones on the side and just have a conversation. Like, “let's be here, let's be present right now.”
There are lots of positive influences, there are lots of positive takeaways. But I also feel that because I worked on my body so extensively, and because I started looking so different from what I usually look like, it made me dysmorphic. It also oddly made me narcissistic to a point where I was like, “Shit, I'm looking so nice!” I was never somebody who would be stuck in a zone where I would be discussing somebody's looks or their body for more than 30 seconds. But I really fell for that trap after I started seeing myself as somebody who I hadn't imagined myself to look like. I started getting more compliments and attention. It also had a very different effect on me, apart from just, like, the positive takeaways. It has taken some time to be okay with the fact that I'm not going to look like that forever because that was just a character.
How did you come to terms with that?
I'm not playing Neil. I'm Adarsh, and he is different depending on what project he's on. When I'm not doing any other project, I just want to live my own life and eat good food. I believe in exercising and keeping myself fit, and I enjoy doing that. It comes to me very naturally. But I also don't want to deprive myself of the food because when I said (I was) living like a monk, the biggest part of becoming Neil was to go on an insane diet where I didn't eat anything for one and a half years, except for what was prescribed by my nutritionist. I don't want to do that to myself — unless I'm playing a character — like a boxer for whom I have to be that shredded.
Two years ago in an interview with Film Companion, you said you believe in auditioning for your parts. Do you still believe in auditioning for every project, or are you at a stage where you think you’ve done enough work for people to hire you on the basis of your previous work?
I audition for every project internationally. I don't audition for every project in India. When I don't audition, it makes me very nervous. I thank all the directors who've taken that leap of faith with me. I never take my job lightly, not for a single second, because I'm aware of the fact that I'm not the most talented person — but I am, and will always try to be the most hardworking person.
My biggest fear as an actor, or as a storyteller, is to become stagnant. I will do everything in my capacity for that not to happen. Whether it means doing workshops, or going to film school again, or just living life for some time and not shooting for something to gain perspective I can use.
With the kind of success you have seen, has it become harder to live a “normal” life? Do you still do the kind of prep you did for The White Tiger where you worked at a tea stall?
I think it is pretty normal. Maybe it's because of the nature of my projects. Maybe because I look very different in each project compared to how I look in real-life. Maybe it's got to do with me living in Mumbai. All these factors put together have not really changed much for me in terms of the things I like to do, or the things I would usually do. I have this thing where — right now my father's living with me, so he goes and gets the veggies — I cannot order veggies because I'm very paranoid about the quality of veggies. I always go to the market myself and buy and hand pick my vegetables, and it's very important for me to do that. I also like having a conversation with the bhaiya (who is selling them). I ask him about the rates or about anything that's happening related to the veggies — about the vegetable market etc. I feel like these are the moments, these little pockets of time are when you're actually in touch with reality, right? As an actor, your profession just constantly demands you to be on the phone, or giving interviews, or pretending to be somebody else. But then you have these little spaces of time where you're walking on the street where nobody knows you're an actor when you're going to buy your sabji (vegetables) and the sabjiwala bhaiya doesn't know you're an actor, so he's treating you like a regular customer.
I think these things are very important for me. God forbid, if someday I become famous — I'll find ways to disguise myself and keep living my life the way I want to.
Are you not afraid of being mobbed by fans?
I mean, I get recognised here and there, but no, they don't mob me, man. I'm not that guy. I think commercial actors get mobbed. Even Pankaj Tripathi or Rajkumar Rao would get mobbed, and I wouldn't call them commercial actors. But it takes a lot of time to get there and I'm just starting out. I look very unassuming, like most people. Even when they would see me on the road, I don't think they would be like, “Oh that’s an actor!” Subconsciously, you still associate actors to be a certain way, right? For example, when somebody in your hometown is 6ft tall, everybody's like “Tu actor kyu nahi ban jata? (Why don’t you become an actor?)” Paanch foot walo ko aisa koi nahi bolta, bhale ki acting dono ko na aati ho (Nobody says that to people who are 5ft tall, even though neither might actually be good at acting). But there is an association that you have — lamba, gora-chitta, daadhi (tall, fair, has a beard) etc looks like an actor.
It's that thing even when I'm walking on the street. I don't think people realise most of the time that I'm an actor, or even if they do, they're very calm about it. Also, I'm not an actor whose movies release in the box office where people are bursting firecrackers. I'm playing characters, and mostly people who come to me and recognise me are also people who want to have conversations with me. They're not like people who just want to come, take a photo, and bounce.
You play such intense characters. What is your process like, and has it changed over the years?
Essentially, when I get to play any character, I try to replicate the life of the character myself in preparation. I’ve spoken about what I did for The White Tiger a lot of times (he worked at a tea stall for a daily wage). Whatever I did for Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, it was about looking like that and also feeling like that. The feeling part of it was covered because, as I said, I related to Neil, but I looked nothing like Neil when I auditioned for the part. First of all, I have to thank Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Arjun Varain Singh for believing that I could transform into what they had imagined this character to be. I looked more like Balram (from The White Tiger) than Neil when I was auditioning. For Supermen of Malegaon (his next with Tiger Baby productions, a Reema Kagti directorial), I had to transform physically, mentally and work on my diction as well. They're all equally challenging, and they're all equally interesting.
Who knows what my process will be in five years or ten years from now? But right now, this is what I believe in. Sometimes I enjoy preparing for my role much more than I enjoy shooting for it, because when you're shooting for it, there are rules and boundaries that control you.
It's like swimming in a pool versus swimming in an ocean. When I'm preparing for a part, it's like swimming in an ocean — I can go anywhere I want, I can do whatever I want to do, I can speak to anybody I want, behave however I want, because nobody knows who I am. I'm just a body on the way to becoming somebody else. I have a lot of fun prepping for things because it makes me feel very free.
I like replicating the life of the character I play. It's also important I do that because I feel like we, as people, are creatures of habit. For anything to become a habit, it needs a certain amount of repetition. If somebody's a smoker, he becomes a smoker because he smoked for ten years. If somebody's an alcoholic, he becomes an alcoholic because he's been drinking for ten years. Similarly, when I play a character, there are certain things that I identify within that character that I should be doing. It could be the way he talks, it could be the way he looks. For that to become a habit, I need time, and I need repetition, which is why I prepare the way I do.
You are a trained actor. Should aspiring actors invest in formal training for their craft?
It's paramount that they do. There is no such thing as a natural actor — that's a myth. There are certain prerequisites that you need to be an actor, okay? To be an actor, you need to be observational, you need to be empathetic, you need to be like a sponge to absorb everything. You need to be shameless to be able to express yourself.
Training is important because it helps you to use all these traits that you have — genetics, and your conditioning — and gives you a structure that you can fall back on, and not repeat yourself too much. When you only rely on the existing traits that you've imbibed as a reason of genetics or as a reason of social conditioning, you will only keep playing yourself. They say, “Oh, he's such a natural.” But when somebody tells somebody, “Oh, bro, you were so good, like, you were exactly like yourself!”, it's actually not a compliment, because your job as an actor is to convince them that you are anything but yourself.
Training is important to be able to play different characters. It's unfortunate that people in India don't give training that importance, especially in acting. For everything else, people are trained — people are very trained in music, people are trained in dancing, people are trained in cricket and whatever sport they play. Acting is an acquired skill, you know?
In an interview recently, you said you want to be a director/filmmaker. What kind of stories do you want to tell? Who are your favourite filmmakers?
I can tell you the directors that excite me: Ari Aster and Jordan Peele. I think I gravitate towards psychological thrillers with a pinch of comedy in it, like satire. I really enjoy that.
I don't know what kind of films I'll end up making. My intention is also to produce films. I want to be a filmmaker, and a producer. I don't know what the stories are going to be, and I don't know who it will be with, but I hope that they're with the kind of people that I look up to, and that I want to collaborate with.
You worked on Extrapolations, a drama series about the climate crisis. How important is social messaging? Do you think your artistry and your activism should be separated?
That's an interesting question. I've actually been conflicted about it and I don't have an answer for you at the moment. I mean, I do have an answer, but my answer might change tomorrow. So you can't hold me to it.
I believe that it's not my responsibility to give a message with every film that I'm choosing to be a part of. I didn't want to be an actor to give a message to people or to teach them a lesson, or to run a moral science class. I act because I like it, and I like to tell stories. Some stories have no messages. They are random. I, however, do believe that in a country like India, it is important to have some kind of moral conscience as a filmmaker, because fortunately or unfortunately, people do get influenced heavily by cinema.
But, if films were entirely the reason for society to change, then we would be living in a very different kind of society right now. You, however, cannot ignore the fact that there is some role that it plays in influencing society. But I don't want to take up that responsibility as an actor or as an artist. If somebody wants to see something good in what I'm doing, in the stories that I'm being a part of, I'm more than happy. I'm happy that they are choosing to see the good in it or they are picking the right things from it. But I'm not consciously deciding to tell stories with a message. I'm doing it purely for myself as an actor and as a storyteller.
Tell us about finding Jugnu. What are some things you like to keep in mind when you are playing a trans character?
To be working with Raj and DK is an immense privilege that very few actors have had. But, it was also the unpredictability of not knowing what Jugnu would be or what they would behave like or what they would do in a certain situation. I enjoyed the unpredictability and found it very liberating.
The way I played Jugnu was, first of all, I tried to understand what their childhood would look like. What would it be like to grow up without a mother, and to have a sister who's older to you who got married very early on? To have no confidant in your life who you can actually be honest with? It's such a suffocating and restricting life to live, and a false life to live, almost. What would it be like to have a best friend, who you consider your best friend, but they don't consider themselves your best friend? They are your best friend because they're forced to be friends with a gangster. I think those were the first things that I got into. Also, this is somebody whose goal in life is to please their father, that's why they're living. I feel that is also such a sad reason to live, where it becomes entirely about pleasing your father. That cannot be the reason to live, and that cannot be your purpose.
I believe everybody has to find their purpose, and it has to be personal, but it cannot entirely be for the validation from one specific person, because then you're hedging all your bets on that. You will be disappointed, and that disappointment will be massive. These were the first things that struck me. Physically, I didn't want to — all of us, I feel, are a mix of male and female, masculine and feminine energy. But there are certain times when you see that feminine energy comes in, that's when they become endearing, because women are inherently nurturing, and they are caring and stuff. But when men behave like that, that is when you see the feminine side to that person within the man.
I just wanted to play Jugnu as somebody whose feminine side you saw more than the masculine side. The feminine energy, the nurturing, the caring part of it was dominant. I have a couple of friends who are trans women, and I went and spoke to them before I started filming. We talked about their journeys, what they went through while transitioning and what they felt like in their childhood. If you are a person who doesn't identify with the sex that you're assigned at birth, who do you look up to? Who will be your role model? That's a big question. I realised that even for Jugnu — perhaps Jugnu's role model would be Rekha? Somebody like Rekha, who's defied the standard norms of living in society the way a woman is expected to live. Perhaps Sridevi would also be a role model, for the grace, and for how beautifully she dances. I started tripping on all these things when I was building Jugnu.
These things are, of course, not in the script. These are things that you come up with, and then you jam on these ideas with the director. Hopefully the director doesn't tell you that these are absolute trash, and throws them out of the window. I'm fortunate to have a good instinct about these things. The ideation was a collaborative process between me and Raj and DK. We jammed on them, and we felt like we were on the right page and we were thinking about Jugnu in the way we wanted to.
What do you think about cis actors playing trans characters?
Look, I understand why a trans person would say that (cis actors shouldn’t play trans characters), and why they feel like that. But I also feel you choose to be an actor so that you can play and experience all these things, right? Because, then, what is the point for me to be an actor? I'm not here just to make money or be famous. Those things don't interest me. Those things are shallow. What does interest me, however, is to be able to convincingly portray a life. To do that, to be able to understand that life that I'm playing, it's a big responsibility. But I feel like if you are an actor, irrespective of what your gender is, or what your sexual orientation is, you're a neutral piece of body and you should be able to become anything that you want to become, provided that people are invested in you, and you yourself have the right intention.
We have seen you play the “underdog” character quite a few times now. Is there a personal affinity to these parts? Are you seeking them out or are these parts being offered to you?
I never thought about it till you asked me this question. I think that these parts find me. I'm not consciously trying to play the underdog. I think people look at me like that, maybe, and that's why they asked me to play these parts, or audition for these parts.
Aren’t you worried about being typecast?
(Laughs) Playing the underdog gives you the juiciest part — the part that goes through the most. By extension, if I get typecasted, I guess, so be it.
I haven't thought about it. I just want to enjoy myself, really. I don't want to repeat a character for at least six to seven years.
Do you read reviews?
I do read reviews, yes. I believe that there are some reviews that actually make a lot of sense. I understand the point of a criticism, and I feel like I take criticism well. I'm not saying that I'm unaffected by it — of course, I'm affected by pieces that criticise my work, but I also see the point of it sometimes.
Kho Gaye Hum Kahan is being dubbed the Dil Chahta Hai of this generation. Do you think it’s going to achieve cult status as well?
I don't think anything will achieve the status of Dil Chahta Hai. The times were different. But, the emotion of it is the same. It's still about those three friends. In fact, I feel it's nice because now there's a girl in the equation, with it still being platonic. There's no sexual attraction. It's still three friends irrespective of gender. I think I'm very grateful to people for comparing it to Dil Chahta Hai, but no film can ever be Dil Chahta Hai.
Kho Gaye Hum Kahan represents what today's generation is going through. I think that it does it honestly, and it does it with the right intention, which is why people are able to relate to it.
What can you tell us about the Supermen of Malegaon? What is it like to work with Reema Kagti?
It is phenomenal. It's one of the most exciting films that I've ever been a part of. It's based on a documentary by the same name, and it's about a bunch of people who have nothing to do with films, but are very passionate about them, and want to make films too. I've been such a massive fan of Reema Kagti since her first film Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007). In fact, I had heard her stories of being an AD (Assistant Director) on the sets of Lagaan (2001), and now that I’ve spoken to her, I think she is one of the best filmmakers we have, and she's an amazing leader. I got to learn so much by working in a film that was directed by her in terms of how to lead the crew, in terms of the clarity with which she directs, the style that she has. It was just an amazing experience. I can't wait for people to watch the film, and to read the reviews (laughs). I'm very proud of that story.
Tell us about Alien. What are you looking forward to?
So, Alien is actually called Mr. October. It's based on Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979). It's a sci-fi story set in the future. It's directed by Noah Hawley, who made Fargo (2014), and I'm playing one of the leads in it. I'm the only Indian in the cast, and it's got actors from all over the world, including Alex Lawther and Samuel Blenkin. Alex Lawther was in The End of the F...ing World (2017), and Samuel Blenkin was in the best episode of the latest season of Black Mirror. I had a big fan moment with both of them when I met them.
I'm just super excited to be part of such a massive franchise, and I'm looking forward to having a blast in Bangkok. It's a six month shoot — start to end, and I'm waiting to begin.