'The White Tiger' is perhaps a fitting name for the film, because just like the majestic beast, it is a film that arrives once in a lifetime. It is not just a statement, but a satire on society that goes the extra mile to question every loose thread that binds millions of Indians into undignified poverty. The kind that makes one a puppet in the hands of one's rich masters.
The story follows the life of a Balram, a driver for a powerful and affluent business family born into the almost unbreakable cage of destitution, as he narrates an extraordinary tale of how he broke the mould for himself. Balram is no saint, but he is a man who is real, who has seen everything that is wrong with the world and has learnt to survive in a brutal environment. He is not under any misconceptions about the employment of his masters, and knows exactly what his fate will be if he does not learn to think on his feet, correctly pointing out that the trustworthiness of the servant is the basis of the entire Indian economy.
As the story progresses, we learn that Balram is no hero, and neither would he like to call himself one. This is the story of an underdog – not the Slumdog Millionaire kind, but one who knows how to control his destiny. The film often gives brilliant analogies that trace back to India's ancient customs, as one relates them with the ironic plight that millions in our nation suffer today. It is a story anyone born without a silver spoon can relate to, and the unfairness of their lives is painted on a haunting white canvas.
The thing that is most intriguing about The White Tiger is the challenge it offers to the system, the redemption that is not granted but earned by Balram, through his tragic plight. A scene that offers much foresight into this is the one right before the climax, when Balram is driving his master Ashok to his destination. He narrates the riveting story of a Brahmin asking Buddha if he is a man or a God, with Buddha giving the perfect answer, "I am neither. I am simply awake while the rest of you are asleep." One then knows that this sums up Balram's psyche. He sees himself as one who has recognized how brutal, unfair, and barbaric life can be, and is not afraid to want better for himself. He now knows of his worth, his brilliance as he navigates his way through life, but he questions why his father never taught him how to be sophisticated, brush his teeth and be presentable, clearly symbolic of how the upper classes were simply lucky enough to be bred in a certain system and way of life, just another luxury unavailable to the poor.
Priyanka Chopra as Pinky is one of the most real side characters, perhaps the only one around him who even attempts to understand him, as she too considers herself as someone who broke the wheel, albeit in a lesser way. Her compassion for him is not filtered out through social constructs, and she does not see him as a lesser being, in contrast to her husband Ashok who simply prefers to enjoy his companionship, while he chooses to treat him the way he deems fit in the presence of his fellow upper-class members. And yet there is a loyalty that is expected of Balram, through the most demeaning and often inhuman treatment from those of a higher social rank.
The film is brutal in its depiction of India, but it hides nothing. It does not pretend to be something it is not. It is simply an angry tale of an angry man in an angry society.
A white tiger we need from time to time…