Synopsis – The epic journey of a poor Indian driver who must use his wit and cunning to break free from servitude to his rich masters and rise to the top of the heap.
My Take – In a matter of pure coincide, the year 2008 saw both the release of director Danny Boyle‘s film, Slumdog Millionaire, and the publication of Aravind Adiga‘s novel The White Tiger, which incidentally both contain stories about two poor young men defying odds stacked against them at the backdrop of a globalizing India.
However, having read author Adiga‘s novel, I knew his story was thematically very different to the Oscar winning film as it is much more conscious, and a far more morally unsettling piece of work, with a protagonist who came into his fortune through acts of theft, deception and murder.
And now 13 years later, the Netflix adaption helmed by writer-director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) acts as the necessary anti-Slumdog Millionaire, with even a cheeky line thrown in about how there’s no million-rupee game-show prize at the end of the story, all the while expertly integrating an engrossing socio-political commentary about the rich poor divide in India with a thrilling cynical narrative.
While the film treads in a quite dark territory, director Bahrani manages to hit right spots by adding enough humor and gutsy drama to unlock any discomfort one might feel while trying to understand how deep-rooted the caste, class and religious hatred has seeped into the people of India, and how the people in power use that notion to oppress.
More importantly it is also quite impossible to not get seduced by the main character’s ambitions and the plot as he is by the gold-plated world of the wealthy.
Narrated in flashback, on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao‘s visit to India in 2010, the story follows Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), an entrepreneur, who is composing an email requesting a meeting with him, all the while telling his life story. Born in a poor coal mining village, despite showing early promise as a student, his domineering grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) pulls Balram out of school and puts him to work at a tea shop with his brother.
However, being smart and ambitious, he immediately spots the perfect opportunity when he lays eyes on Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the U.S. return younger son of the richest landlord of the region, who is known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar).
Landing a driver job, Balram worships both Ashok and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), as the young couple are kinder than the others, with Ashok and Balram even striking up a close friendship. However when a tragedy strikes and the family’s security is threatened everything changes, hereby, destroying any illusions Balram may have harbored, sending him down a darker complex path.
This isn’t just another saga of a humble man breaking bad, but instead a searing adaptation about the suffocating traps of class, especially in a society as stratified as India and offers a refreshing angle on the formula, bolstered by director Bahrani’s lively, confident direction.
Told as a Dickensian rags-to-riches story with touches of a psychological thriller and an extra layer of satire, the film is a social commentary on the class discrimination, caste structure and oppression that the lower strata have been facing for the longest, while wealthy are either dumb or find comfort in that. The rich stay in plush apartments with chandeliers and shining walls. But the poor delve in the shadow of their high rises and basements. The poor create a world out of the mess in the basement, just like rats would.
The drama at the film’s center is certainly intriguing, building up Balram’s loyalty to his employers until, Pinky and Ashok cause a road accident, then convince Balram to take the blame. This central dilemma hits close to the heart of India’s massive class divide, momentarily reflecting several real-world cases where poor drivers were forced or convinced to take the blame for the drunken actions of their rich employers.
Here, Balram unfolds his story as a kind of high-risk business plan, as most of the country lives in poverty, he argues, anyone trying to break out will have to resort to cutthroat tactics. Throughout the film, Balram likens the poor to roosters in a cage, unquestioning in their acceptance of an economic system that is forever stacked against them. However, Balram also sees himself as the fabled white tiger, a rare and remarkable beast that will forge its own destiny.
Though the film rushes through its violent closing passages, as if it were unwilling to fully grapple with what it’s showing us, there’s an attractive modesty to director Bahrani‘s approach. He doesn’t sensationalize poverty or wealth, for that matter. And despite the film’s considerable visual energy and upbeat musical selections, director Bahrani doesn’t turn India into a flashy spectacle. He tries to keep his focus on the characters and the desperate circumstances in which they find themselves.
It also helps that the film contains a highly entertaining turn from Adarsh Gourav. Here, Gourav‘s performance is lively, spirited, funny, sympathetic, frightening and many other things. Gourav captures both the wide-eyed, pseudo-romantic fascination with which Balram gazes upon society’s upper echelons, and the deep betrayal he feels when their acceptance turns out to be conditional.
Most importantly, he’s thoroughly convincing in his portrayal of a man on slow boil, transforming from naive common man to shrewd entrepreneur, from anonymous member of the servant class to an individual in charge of his destiny.
In supporting turns, both Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao sleep walk through their roles, once again setting an example of master class acting. In other roles, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Kamlesh Gill, and Swaroop Sampat are effective too. On the whole, ‘The White Tiger’ is a darkly funny and ferocious trip into India’s caste system worth visiting.
Directed – Ramin Bahrani
Rated – R
Run Time – 125 minutes