The White Tiger
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Don’t compare The White Tiger to Slumdog Millionaire. Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s book of the same name is sinister and grimy, not in the least bit resembling Danny Boyle’s over-the-top Bollywood caricature. An incisive commentary on caste and India’s place in the world, Bahrani’s adaptation brings to life a captivating tale undergirded by a simmering sense of humour that threatens to overflow as unhinged ire.
The story is narrated by a presentday Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) as he looks back on his rise from the caste of a poor villager in Laxmangarh to an entrepreneur in modern-day Bangalore. As his last name suggests, Balram is from a family of sweet-makers — this is what he is destined to become, no matter the fact that he excels in school. His grandmother pulls him out of school and gets him working in the family teashop, but the cunning and self-aware Balram has higher hopes. He becomes a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the son of the village’s landlord, and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), who are visiting from America. He eventually earns their trust, but is hurt by the way they see him as their servant.
The film does a stunning job of showing us Balram’s growing awareness of how the poor exist right outside the windows of the rich, amplifying the rich’s blinkered view of the world, and how it is justifiable, within the logic of the film, for Balram to exploit his exploiters. In Delhi, while Ashok and Pinky stay in a penthouse suite, Balram sleeps within the cryptlike basement of the hotel, which is designated for the help. Outside of the hotel, when Balram has some time for himself, he walks through Delhi, seeing the difference between destitution in a village and poverty in the city. Working for Ashok, Balram realizes, “Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.”
Perhaps within a more optimistic writer’s world, Balram’s story would scan as a rags-to-riches fairytale, but The White Tiger gives us an antihero whom we simultaneously love and loathe. Balram’s agency, his desire to rise out of the status of victim of circumstances, is admirable, but Bahrani shows us the logical extreme of this industrious personality and its potential to veer off into madness.
Though Balram’s clunky narration doesn’t translate as successfully from print to film, this is easily overlooked in face of all the film’s other successes: a brilliant score, simmering satire, and simultaneously brilliant and terrifying performances. (Netflix)