Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Manjrekar
Streaming on: Netflix
Adarsh Gourav. An assessment of The White Tiger must begin with the actor who is terrifying and poignant as Balram Halwai, the upwardly mobile driver in the film. Balram is fiercely smart, vengeful and filled with a seething rage that he camouflages with an overtly servile manner. With more education and opportunities, he could have run the country. But when you are a lower-caste boy from a large, poor family in rural India, both are in short supply. Balram is born into what he calls the darkness but he wills his way into turning it into something like light.
Balram does terrible things to get ahead. Like the Kim family in Bong-Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, he goes about his dastardly deeds without drama or conscience. For him, the choices he makes are the only ones he has. Adarsh is electrifying as Balram. He inhabits every inflection of the character – from his slouching shoulders, as though generations of being subservient has moulded even his body language, to his shifty gaze to his superbly honed survival instinct to his cunning and cruelty to his keen understanding of his own tragedy – of having a mind that supersedes his station. Watch Adarsh in a scene in which Balram’s employers coerce him into taking the blame for an accident he didn’t commit. His eyes well over as he comprehends the extent of their indifference. Adarsh delivers a sensational performance, which propels the film.
The White Tiger is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel. The novel is dedicated to Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. So it’s fitting that it has been reworked for the screen by him. It’s also fitting because through his nearly two-decade-long career, Bahrani’s cinema has consistently searched for poetry in the ordinary. His characters live lives of quiet desperation – think of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop or 99 Homes. Adiga’s novel is a savage exploration of the horrors of globalized India. The book is narrated in first-person by Balram whose sharp, serrated voice slices like a cleaver through meat. Bahrani retains that, with Balram taking us through his story, which is narrated through emails that Balram is writing to a Chinese premier visiting the country. At one point, Balram observes: A good servant must know his master from end to end, from lips to anus. And at another: Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?
Like the book, the film will make you squirm. There is no respite here from the horrors of oppression, corruption, entitlement, greed and the casual nastiness with which those with money treat those without it. Or in Balram’s words, those with big bellies and those with small bellies. Bahrani consistently underlines the contrasts. Balram’s masters – Ashok and Pinky – live in a lush apartment with shiny marble and chandeliers. In the same sprawling building complex, Balram and other drivers live in the dingy basement. Balram sleeps under a mosquito net, which also keeps the swarming cockroaches at bay. They crawl above him as if they are higher in the food chain. It is as though New Delhi is a modern-day version of the city in Fritz Lang’s science-fiction classic Metropolis, where the rich live in towering skyscrapers while the poor toil underneath. Balram, who thinks of himself as a once-in-a-generation white tiger, desperately wants to break-out of what he calls the ‘rooster coop’.
Balram isn’t the only one resisting his fate. Despite their affluence, Ashok and Pinky are also trapped. Ashok’s overbearing landlord father, who Balram calls the stork and his brother, the mongoose, are the ones yanking the strings. But they too are hustling to curry favor with the powerful chief minister only known as The Great Socialist, played by a solid Swaroop Sampat. The jungle metaphor runs through the story, from the film’s title to Divine’s throbbing Jungle Mantra song, which plays at the end. Lawlessness permeates every aspect of life, including the traffic. Early in the film, a driving teacher tells Balram, ‘Sadak ek jungle hai.’ But finally, it is the sadak where Balram finds his freedom.
The White Tiger is in equal parts, dazzling, funny and brutal. For much of the film, Bahrani sustains a boisterous energy with brisk editing, pungent dialogue and striking images by DoP Paolo Carnera. One of the highlights is Kamlesh Gill as Balram’s awful, blood-sucking grandmother. In this jungle, even the great Indian family is a predator. Granny is Balram’s first nemesis. Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, who is also an executive producer, is nicely understated as the Indian American Pinky who at least attempts to treat Balram as a human being. But Rajkummar Rao never finds his bearings as Ashok. The usually terrific actor is saddled with a clumsy accent and clumsier dialogue. Ashok has recently moved from the US to India. We aren’t told how long he was abroad but he says lines like: Why does this caste matter? or In America, they could sue you for that. Neither Bahrani, who has written the film nor Rajkummar are able to make Ashok convincing. There are also stray moments – like a defecation scene – which feel gratuitous and border on poverty porn. But mostly, The White Tiger lands its punches.
Don’t go into the film expecting a retread of Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, the film positions itself as anti-Slumdog. There is no fairytale ending here. The White Tiger is a kinetic excursion into darkness with Balram as our charismatic guide.
You can watch the film on Netflix.