The White Tiger (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the more telling moments in Ramin Bahrani’s expertly-crafted “The White Tiger” comes roughly early into the proceedings. We’re in Bangalore, India in the mid-2000s (with the story being told from 2010). Our narrator and protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), the poor son of a rickshaw driver, manages to get a job as a chauffeur for wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Ashok’s rich, successful (and corrupt) father known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjreker) treats Balram like a slave and even hits him twice, to Pinky’s dismay. She protests, “You can’t do that in America!” The Stork’s replay: “This isn’t America.”

That it isn’t. But one of the things many of us will learn from news stories (and/or stories like this one), it’s that the poor, when pushed too far, will go to great lengths to break out of the caste system and possibly overcome the rich to find their own pathways to success–no matter what country they live in.

“The White Tiger” is adapted from a Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, a close friend of masterful filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who directs the film adaptation in a style similar to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” in how we see Balram’s story told in flashbacks (and through voiceover narration) about how he got to a certain point in his life and what he plans to do next. Needless to say, it’s not easy–in fact, even though there are somy amusing and cynical touches brought to the storytelling, “The White Tiger” is a rather dark and disturbing tale about the sacrifices this ambitious Indian slumdog makes during his pursuit of happiness.

We’re already in Balram’s mindset with this early line of VO narration: “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.” In introducing himself in this manner, we have a pretty good idea of what he aspires to be and what he’s willing to go through (and hide within himself) to achieve it. We also get a flash of his childhood–as a young boy in Laxmangarh, he is seen as bright and able to achieve great things. (He’s also referred to as a “white tiger,” which is a way of meaning he’s someone special.) But when his father is unable to pay off The Stork, who is the corrupt landlord of the family’s village, Balram is no longer able to attend school. (His father also ties from consumption, with no doctor to treat him.)

As a young man, Balram is able to find his way into the chauffeur job, working for Ashok, who treats him like a friend rather than a slave, and Pinky, who is sympathetic towards him. His friendship with the two leads to a night of reckless partying and driving, especially when Pinky takes over for Balram at the wheel…which leads to a tragic accident. This tragedy is a heavy reminder of Balram’s current place in this brutal world, and it’s a catalyst for the next step in Balram’s journey of self-satisfaction. He is going to take control of his own life from this point forward, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“The White Tiger” is a bitingly sharp satire of how class structure can be a cutthroat game in India, and it’s also an exceptionally vivid character study about this man, played perfectly by Adarsh Gourav and written brilliantly by Bahrani (who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). Whether you root for Balram or want nothing to do with him (and the film does a great job keeping that delicate balance), you still understand why he does certain things.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” this is not. In fact, there’s even an unsubtle dig at that flick: “Don’t believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of the chicken coop.” It’s all the more tragic when you realize how many people are still struggling in the “chicken coop” that is their country.

“The White Tiger” is a rough and masterfully crafted look at how far some people will go to stray away from a life of victimhood no matter who gets in their way–and it’s as powerful a film as this great filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, can deliver. I won’t forget this film anytime soon.

“The White Tiger” is available on Netflix.

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