Published Jan 20, 2021It might be tempting to compare The White Tiger to Slumdog Millionaire, but you'd do a disservice to the former specifically and the genre of black comedy generally. Director Ramin Bahrani's adaptation of Aravind Adiga's book of the same name is sinister and grimy, not in the least bit resembling the over-the-top caricature of Bollywood movies that lives in the West's (specifically Danny Boyle's) mind. 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 present-day 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, the matriarch of the Halwai family, pulls Balram out of school and gets him working in the family teashop. But the cunning and self-aware Balram has higher hopes, a desire to become better than what his last name has in store for him. So he sets his sights on becoming a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the son of the village's landlord, and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), who are visiting from America. As driver and servant to Ashok, Balram waxes poetic about his love for Ashok and sets about, successfully, becoming an indispensable servant to him. Ashok and Pinky trust him — and seem to even like him.
But Balram quickly realizes that Ashok and Pinky are, ultimately, his masters, and they don't love him in the way he loves them. Balram learns how corruption runs through every higher power in India, from the rich to the politicians to the authorities, and exactly how all those in power consider the poorer people to be dispensable. 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 crypt-like 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 anti-hero 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, its potential to veer off into madness, how the act of getting out of the situation Balram begins his story in is so difficult it leaves sanity behind as a casualty.
While the film's setting is silently condemnatory, Ashok and Pinky are hilariously tone-deaf. Ashok went to school in the U.S. and that's where he met Pinky, whose parents immigrated to New York when she was young; her family owns a bodega. Bringing with them hollow Western notions of civility toward servants, Ashok and Pinky treat Balram like a friend. But even though they don't beat him, they still expect him to fulfill a servant's functions. Chopra perfectly plays the Americanized Pinky, who thinks it's "backwards" how the poor are treated, but doesn't understand how deeply rooted classism and racism are within the country's systems and ideologies; she doesn't understand that her actions toward Balram continue the injustice, and constitute the backwardness she judges others for. Pinky speaks exclusively in English, save for two words spoken in Hindi to a child selling icons on the street. She wears jeans and she wants so terribly to go back to New York — it's refreshing to see Chopra as this bratty expat. Rao is also great, though scary, as Ashok, who is kind one moment and disciplinary the next. His instincts never let him forget his role as master.
This movie doesn't stray far from its source material, and this is something that becomes apparent at parts due to Balram's clunky narration, which would be beautiful in print but doesn't translate as successfully to film. But this is easily overlooked in face of all the film's other successes: a brilliant score, simmering satire, and simultaneously brilliant and terrifying performances delivered by the cast. The White Tiger is a great movie that, if comparisons must be made, one-ups a Tarantino revenge-fantasy, all while exploding angrily whatever notion you might have of India. (Netflix)