Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Manjrekar
Streaming on: Netflix
It’s 2007. Balram is no regular village boy. Consigned to a life of lower-caste slavery in rural Bihar, he decides to become a different kind of servant – not a caretaker but a driver, so that he can perhaps condition himself to the art of reaching destinations. His future, like that of his country in the throes of globalisation, is under construction. His surroundings, like him, are in transition between the past and the future. He works for his employers in the upcoming township of Gurgaon, and hears tales of Bangalore and the internet and the outsourcing boom. Balram has reason to hope beyond pretentious animal metaphors.
Two films sprung to mind while I watched Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, an official adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning first novel. Both of them, too, contain the subtext of two Indias within the rise of impoverished protagonists. Both of them, too, hinge on observant underdogs who serve the ambitions of the post-liberalization elite. The first one is Slumdog Millionaire, an all-out romanticization of the rural underdog. Its mythologisation of the marginalised – through music, love, violence, drama – defeated the purpose of acknowledging them. Danny Boyle’s pristinely unironic rags-to-riches fairytale went for the brown jugular: catering to both an exotic White gaze of South Asian suffering and an exotic upper-class gaze of lower-class grit at once. Naturally, the film won several Oscars. The second one is Serious Men, a biting satire that subverts the slumdog formula by featuring a shrewd lower-caste underdog who exploits urban India’s sympathetic perception of underdogs. By revelling in the rage of the unseen, the film actually humanizes their ‘darkness’. His revenge for decades of oppression is hardly heroic – it’s personal, selfish and sociopathic.
In terms of theme, The White Tiger lies bang in between these two films. Balram starts out as a wide-eyed Slumdog hero only to morph into a Serious Men anti-hero. It’s the sweet spot – not naive enough to glorify the rags-to-riches story, but not sly enough to subvert the narrative with subtle class warfare. Like most humans, he is simply pushed and pushed until he explodes. The emotional density of his journey, then, feels genuine. But in terms of the art of literary adaptation, The White Tiger veers towards the former despite straddling the pragmatism of the latter. Ramin Bahrani’s filmmaking is inherently burdened with the paradoxical privileges of an English-language novel. The undertaking, by nature, reveals an upper-caste reading of the netherworld: the international makers further dilute the prospect of cultural translation. As a result, the language of words on paper is often at odds with the grammar of images on screen. It can be argued that the central character has every reason to speak in English to impress his employers, but most movies lack a sense of rhythm and timing. The actors visibly think in English, even if their characters are supposed to think in Hindi or other local dialects.
For instance, the film also replicates the ponderous voiceover of the book – of modern-day Balram, an entrepreneur, writing an email to the Chinese Premier on the eve of his visit. On paper, a lot of its sincere street-smartness is left to imagination. Indian readers in particular understand that the lofty musings and ‘broken’ language aren’t literal. Regrettably, the film refuses to shed the literary artifice – so we get a hybrid Dev Patel accent, even if Adarsh Gourav does his best to infuse a small-time-hustler gait into it. Philosophical thought bubbles like “Do we loathe our masters behind the facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?” ring heavy when said out aloud, even as the camera strains to find Balram’s thinking-face.
I get that foreign filmmakers have a different – and often more curious – way of framing the otherness of India, but it’s the silences that lack the rootedness of a voice. It doesn’t help that Balram “breaks” well into the third act and the film is afforded a mere ten minutes to explore his transformation, as more of an afterthought. Perhaps who he becomes is not as important, but an abrupt wrap-up job can only be justified if the narrator himself misses the point of his story. An awkward, student-film-style closing shot indicates that it’s more likely the makers that got lost in the moral mist of an anti-fairytale.
I like whatever I’ve seen so far of Adarsh Gourav, the young actor who plays Balram. Even if he’s restricted by the film’s lack of self-awareness, he nails the sweaty ambiguity of a boy who is bullied into disillusionment by a rigged system. He wasn’t born devious, but his survival instincts are eventually earned. One of the weakest links of The White Tiger, though, is Rajkummar Rao’s performance as Ashok, Balram’s US-returned boss and heir to a coal-mining fortune. It may seem like nitpicking, but Rao’s uneven Indo-American accent – which is very much an integral part of Ashok’s Delhi persona – often punctures the brevity of the film. One can never tell whether Ashok’s confused twang is a put-on for his NRI wife Pinky (a perfectly cast Priyanka Chopra) or if it’s actually the actor fluffling the technicalities of his craft. Given that he’s torn between his corrupt family business and a promise of Western liberalism, one suspects it’s just the sound of a man at the crossroads. A little hint maybe – where his crude brother might have mocked his accent, or where his wife teases him – might have altered our perception of Rao’s role. At times, it seems like he’s concentrating so hard on finding a middle ground of talking that he turns Ashok into a monochromatic tragic pinging between extremes.
Early in the film, Ashok pulls Balram into the bedroom. Impassioned by Balram’s misinterpretation of English phrases, Ashok intellectualizes the boy’s “half-baked” mind to his wife Pinky. Ashok discusses Balram as if he weren’t real or present in the same space – which later ties into a scene where Ashok assuages Pinky’s fears of kissing in the car by remarking, “it’s only Balram”. Balram meanwhile stands like a specimen in a museum, an animal in a zoo, while his employers turn him into a story and dress him up in exotic Maharaja costumes. Some films are defined by their unfortunate metaphors. After all, if reimagined without a point of reference, a white tiger is nothing but a wolf in zebra’s clothing.