Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, best known for his works in Man Push Cart and 99 Homes, sees the Iranian-American director explored what it means to survive as a lowly servant dealing with the harsh reality of India’s caste system.
Told in a flashback and narrated by the rich and successful entrepreneur Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), The White Tiger — which itself based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name — charts a one man’s journey from his day as a poor but bright Laxmangarh kid (Harshit Mahawar) who did well in the class. But he is subsequently forced to abandon school due to his family’s poverty and to pay off debts. As a result, he ends up breaking coals as well as working at the family tea stall. His father (Satish Kumar), in the meantime, falls ill after coughing up blood and eventually died of tuberculosis.
Growing up as a young man, Balram is looking to escape poverty as he seeks greener pastures someplace else. He manages to land a job, where he works as a personal driver for the wealthy patriarch’s (Mahesh Manjrekar’s The Stork) younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra, credited as Priyanka Chopra Jonas).
Unlike the father and his equally uncouth elder son nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), Ashok and Pinky treat Balram fairly by comparison. But despite Balram’s loyalty and devotion serving Ashok and Pinky, everything turns upside down when a vehicular accident occurs one fateful night.
The movie’s rags-to-riches story may draw a similar comparison to Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which centres on a Mumbai teenager (Dev Patel’s Jamal) manages to escape poverty after unexpectedly winning big money for answering every question correctly on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Whereas Slumdog Millionaire is pretty much a feel-good fable, The White Tiger favours more on the grounded and gritty side of class struggles. But it’s far from being a totally depressing one, as writer-director Ramin Bahrani balances a mix of darkly satirical drama and a crime thriller that is lively, gripping and entertaining. Not to mention it has its fair share of funny and even heartbreaking moments as we witness how Balram has to deal with all the inequality and oppression. In The White Tiger, the latter is simply dubbed as a “rooster coop”, referring to the metaphor between the master and servant.
Except for the second half, which could have used a longer duration to delve deeper into Balram’s eventual change-of-heart and resentment rather than wrapping up everything a little too neatly. Still, it’s a minor shortcoming which thankfully doesn’t derail the movie off the track.
The movie benefits from a terrific ensemble, beginning with Adarsh Gourav’s tour de force lead performance as Balram. His multifaceted portrayal from a naive young man to an angry person who had enough with the caste system is particularly impressive. It was the kind of an award-worthy role deserved to be recognised in the year-end’s best acting list.
The rest of the cast is just as great, with all three actors — Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar and Vijay Maurya — bring solid supports to their respective roles. The same also goes with Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who hits the right note playing the rebellious Indian-American wife unable to stand Ashok’s conservative-minded family.
Apart from Bahrani’s robust direction, The White Tiger is also blessed with Paolo Carnera’s cinematography that successfully captured both grit and vibrancy of contemporary India as well as its subject matter. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ overall music score and its hip-hop soundtrack (notably Panjabi MC and Jay-Z’s “Beware of the Boys” and Divine, Vince Staples and Pusha T’s “Jungle Mantra”) complements the film well enough.
The White Tiger is currently streaming on Netflix beginning from January 22, 2021 onwards.