The White TIger
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
The White Tiger (streaming on Netflix) is a blistering social commentary/pitch-black dark comedy about an ambitious young man who yearns to rise from his poor Indian village to a comfortable life in the big city. It is focused on class, family, the relationship between servant and master and what one needs to do to make the transition the movie’s protagonist aspires toward. It contains moments of power and cutting insight, even if it repeats some of its points one time too many. It also doesn’t quite know when to end. The White Tiger is most successful when it keeps its plot moving, watching as its “hero” desperately attempts to make his way up the social ladder. It is a good movie, with stretches of greatness.
Balram lives with his family in the small town of Laxmangarh. A smart kid, he is given the opportunity to study in Delhi. Instead, his Grandmother forces him to work to support the family. Years later, the mafia-esque family who runs the town needs a driver for their son who has recently returned from America. Though he doesn’t know how to drive, Balram sees his destiny and begins his journey as an opportunistic entrepreneur.
Writer/director/producer/co-editor Ramin Bahrani (adapting the 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga) does a very good job of establishing his themes and allowing them to play out to their logical conclusions. However, there are two ways in which The White Tiger goes wrong. The first is with its narration. It is helpful at the beginning, to get us to understand Balram’s world and his mindset. Unfortunately, Bahrani is a little over reliant on it as the story goes on, using it to tell us how Balram is changing, instead of always showing. It becomes a crutch for hammering home information, as opposed to a tool to deliver the screenplay’s message more effectively (for example, its chicken coop metaphor, which works well early, before being beaten into the ground).
The second is the pacing in the middle and the end, where it kind of steps all over the impact of its final few scenes. Balram is chosen as the personal driver for the generous (comparatively speaking) Ashok and his progressive wife, Pinky. He goes with them to the big city so Ashok can represent his family in bribing important members of the Indian government. Once it has been clearly established that the caste system has ingrained the idea of loyalty into people like Balram, to the point that he believes it is an honor just to be able to serve Ashok, we can move on to see how Balram deals with the abuse he routinely receives. And whether or not he ever acknowledges the anger that has been building in him since his childhood was taken from him. Yet it lingers on the details of his life as a servant and his frustrating relationship with Ashok.
Okay, that last part is really interesting for a while and provides the spark for Balram justifying his worst actions. Still, The White Tiger probably dawdles for about 10-20 minutes too long, after we have already gotten the concept that, once born into the darkness, being a servant is the best life you can hope for. Balram’s arc is fascinating as it evolves, but too much time is spent delaying its evolution in favor of overexplaining why he has to do what he will do.
Balram is played by Adarsh Gourav with a sneaky intelligence that makes me think he knows exactly what he is doing. He has this way of smiling at his masters where his mouth is smiling while his eyes are not. He seems to accept his place, but his eyes say something different. The fact that Gourav lets us sense this without giving it away with his body language or line delivery is incredibly impressive (and part of the reason why the narration is so unsatisfying).
Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra, as Ashok and Pinky, play well off of him, as well as each other. They are the “nice” masters, who treat him like a friend when it is convenient. That is enough for him to appreciate them, though there is always the possibility that what he actually admires is their privilege. That relationship is the heart of the movie and all three actors do an excellent job of getting across the story’s themes in their performances.
In the world of The White Tiger, the poor have a ceiling and the rich have a floor that is still far above the poor’s ceiling. Balram says his people are fine with the arrangement. That makes it all the more interesting to see him rebel against it. Though it has its flaws, the material that works here is strong enough that I expect it to stay with me for some time.
3¼ out of 5
Adarsh Gourav as Balram
Rajkummar Rao as Ashok
Priyanka Chopra as Pinky Madam
Vijay Maurya as The Mongoose
Mahesh Manjrekar as The Stork
Directed and Screenplay by Ramin Bahrani