An unsentimental film about India’s endless caste struggle
A darkly sparkling tale of class oppression and win-at-all-costs moral compromise, The White Tiger, now streaming on Netflix, roars and bites with equal intensity. But it also has a polished but unfussy style and an understated narrative flow. A measured, coiled rage against the straitjacketed cultural and economic norms of India, the world’s largest democracy and also one of its most corrupt, boils underneath the surface.
THE WHITE TIGER ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Written by: Ramin Bahrani, adapted from the book by Arvind Adiga
Starring: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Running time: 125 min
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani has crafted a steely thriller from Arvind Adiga’s acclaimed novel, a rags-to-riches thriller about a poor young villager named Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) who fast-talks his way into a job as driver for a wealthy, politically connected family. “I was a servant once,” intones Balram, as he tells his tale in flashback. He’s a well-off entrepreneur now, and wanted for murder, too. But it’s best to start at the beginning, when he learned that any boy could rise from poverty to be prime minister—like that once-in-a-generation jungle rarity, the white tiger.
Balram’s story is downright Dickensian. Raised in a hardscrabble village, he’s offered a scholarship in Delhi, but family debts force him to drop out of school and work instead. His loving father dies of tuberculosis, leaving him under the suffocating purview of a controlling granny matriarch. Balram tries to convince her that if he’s a driver for the local coal baron, he can make her the richest woman in the village. She reluctantly agrees, and his saccharine charm gets him the job.
His target: Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the family’s handsome but soft-bellied scion who daydreams of starting a company in India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. “This was the master for me,” Balram gushes with heartbreaking enthusiasm, in one of the film’s many lines that reinforce the chronic brainwashed mindset keeping the lower classes oppressed. “He’s half-baked,” Ashok says with condescending encouragement once he learns that Balram had an interrupted education. He and his brash Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) see potential in him. “You are the new India,” he tells Balram with radical-chic sincerity.
Pinky seems to relish sticking her finger in the eye of Ashok’s paternalistic society, speaking up for herself and her husband while his father and brother tsk-tsk what they consider her impudence. She exudes the careless entitlement that comes with privilege, giving woke speeches to Balram about how he needs to stand up for himself, but treating him with breathtaking disrespect once she’s had a few too many drinks.
That’s the crux of Balram’s dilemma: he seems to have defenders, but their weathervane attitudes don’t always work in his favor. And he wants to do the right thing, but his life has so many roadblocks that a moral compass feels like a luxury. So one compromise leads to another, as honest opportunities give way to ruthless opportunism and a good man slowly turns bad. There will be blood, mostly off-screen; and the body count, delivered almost as an afterthought, is high. In the moment, Balram’s decisions seem justifiable, even necessary for his own self-preservation. And by the end, he seems like someone committed to decency and honor. But still, the White Tiger reeks of despair.
Bahrani’s script adaptation unfolds with clipped efficiency, while still maintaining a novelistic density to his story by preserving its page-turning plot twists and meditative zingers. “What is a servant without a master?” Balram wonders at one point. His recurring metaphor for India is the roosters’ coop, where chickens watch glass-eyed as butchers slaughter their kin in front of their cages. The low caste, his family’s fate, is just such a coop, a mental prison where sadistic masters turn able servants into true supplicants by implicitly threatening to kill their loved ones.
“I was trapped in the roosters’ coop,” says Bahrani. “And don’t you believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.” It’s a sly shiv at Danny Boyle’s fundamentally optimistic and cinematographically pyrotechnic Slumdog Millionaire, which The White Tiger defiantly rebukes. There’s nothing sentimental or flashy about Bahrani’s take on India. His fidelity to the story’s emotional violence is fireworks enough.