Based on the novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (directed by Ramin Bahrani, who adapted the script with Adiga) is a dark and cynical send-up of the caste system and the lengths to which certain members of oppressed classes will go to lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a film that wants to be a lot more intense than it ultimately is, but that’s no fault of the material; though supremely talented all around, the key cast feels slightly off, meaning it’s never quite possible to feel the rough edges they try to convince us are there. As a study in broken souls, however, The White Tiger excels at reminding us that every protagonist doesn’t have to be liked to move a story through its dark paces.
Taking its title from the concept that a white tiger, a bold, beautiful and menacing creature, is born just once in a generation and therefore is a force to be reckoned with, Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, a young man with bold ambitions who’s willing to go to any lengths to achieve them. Born of a lower class where his family expects nothing more of him than to marry and continue the menial work they all do in their village, young Balram (Harshit Mahawar) has other ideas, learning English and earning himself a reputation in the village for his grand plans. The film rushes through its initial set-up, a conceit common for book adaptations as the format isn’t as forgiving as a novel with pages and pages of exposition. Through a series of incidents, Balram discovers that a rich family he’s distantly connected to is in need of a chauffeur; after convincing his grandmother to give him the money for driving school, he weasels his way into a job with the family as driver for the posh son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas).
Employing another device common to adaptations attempting to put some cinematic structure around a cumbersome narrative, we experience Balram’s story through his own narration and voiceover; in fact, we first meet him when he’s already a wealthy business owner who’s clawed his way to the top of the social and economic ladder and he’s looking back on the path that got him to where he is. Gouray, comically mustachioed like a cartoon villain and about as threatening as a teddy bear, is hard to take seriously as a cut-throat climber with bodies in his path to success. But as we learn his story, from his dastardly betrayal of his fellow chauffeur to a tragic event after late-night celebrations for Pinky’s birthday, it’s more and more clear that this is not a man who needs or wants our sympathies. Mostly boasting about his devious ways, it’s next to impossible to take him seriously when he tries to convince us he has a shred of remorse for any of his actions.
Set in India’s bustling capital of New Delhi, Adiga’s story is a sharp exploration of the severe economic inequalities in the massive country, where the poorest of the poor scrape by on crumbs while the wealthiest live lush, intercontinental lives with every indulgence, and the political corruption that enables it. As a vehicle bridging these two worlds, Balram ends up embodying the worst in human nature; desperate to elevate himself out of his own dire circumstances, he’ll let nothing and no one stand in his way. Bahrani’s filmography is a diverse one (Man Push Cart; 99 Homes; even some documentary work), and at certain moments here he seems to be indulging in the pulsing, aggressive style of better-known American gangster films with The White Tiger, an effort that works well with a sometimes brutal narrative. He ushers us seemingly effortlessly through Balram’s distinct and vastly different worlds; notably, the supporting cast of villagers, beggars, fellow servants and others bring more texture and believability to the film than Ashok and those in his wealthy bubble.
The crux of The White Tiger‘s success with audiences lives with Gouray and his portrayal of Balram’s conflicted conscience (to whatever degree it may be), and there are certainly moments where his scheming is, if not forgivable, at least understandable. Who wouldn’t want to improve their circumstances when they come from so little? But with bulky narrative devices working overtime to make sure the point is driven home and Balram’s final metamorphosis a bit beyond credulity, the film risks losing whatever attention it’s earned on the journey from slums to mansions.
The White Tiger is now streaming on Netflix.
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