Ramin Bahrani delivers something audiences did not expect to find so early into 2021: a sensational drama that pulls heartstrings as fiercely as it pleases crowds. Adapted from Arvind Adiga’s bestseller of the same name, The White Tiger is one of the most depressing pieces of cinema to have a PG-13 rating attached. Breakthrough wunderkind Adarsh Gourav brings such bountiful spirit to the part of Balram Halwai that it’s shocking to fathom how much darkness he’s hiding behind his earnest smile. This darkness is not of his own creation — it’s fundamentally systemic. The caste system in India was legally dissolved in 1948, but that did not end the widespread practice.
As Balram narrates, the country is comprised of two factions divided by socioeconomic status: one with “big bellies” and one without. For the latter group, landing a job as a servant is tantamount to winning the lottery. Service work means your family gets a portion of your earnings, you’ll be able to provide for your spouse once a marriage is arranged, and devotion to your “master” won’t interfere with religious obligations. Despite his grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) forcing him to refuse a scholarship to a good school, Balram believes he’s reached the peak of his success when he scores a job as a second driver for the Stork (Mahesh Majrekar).
The coal baron and former landlord of Balram’s small village is flattered by the young boy’s reverence, too absorbed in his own grandiosity to realize the cunning lad will say anything to land this golden opportunity. One person who isn’t so impressed by Balram is the Stork’s eldest son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), an unabashedly cruel man who never lets Balram forget his place.
On the flip side, Stork’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) got a taste of American democracy and returned to India with a newfound respect for those less fortunate. As such, he strives to treat Balram with dignity, kindness, and even friendship, though his progressive attitude might be the consequence of marrying his forward-thinking wife.
Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas) is a woman of humble beginnings who didn’t squander a chance to study abroad. American individuality pours out of her with recognizable warmth; she’s a lifeboat for Balram in a sea of exploitative monsters. Were Balram to cheat or steal from his employers, custom dictates that any punishment would also extend to his family back in Laxmangarh. Therefore, being a servant is no different from enslavement — the shackles may be invisible, but dehumanization is ever-present.
Balram’s autobiographical tale of hellish survival is delivered with enthused voiceover, addressed to China’s Premier Wen Jiabo (Aaron Wan) in lieu of the world leader’s visit. China’s entrepreneurial success under socialist governance inspires Balram, who is hoping to secure a meeting with Jiabo to boast about his savvy entrepreneurship. Even if his life story doesn’t translate via email, it certainly transcends through the screen. From Balram’s road to success, it’s clear that climbing the social ladder means playing by the same dirty rules as your oppressors. Balram’s scheming and heinous plotting all serve necessary advancement he would never otherwise be granted. Sometimes to achieve equality in a broken system, you have to sink to the lowest of levels just to make headway.
Narratives like The White Tiger provide empathy for the disenfranchised who break the law, whether it be shoplifting, illegal side hustles, or even stepping over those without the gumption to rise further. Balram makes some morally deplorable decisions that will scar him for life, but the alternative is even worse: a neverending pattern of abusive power dynamics and low-income stagnancy. What kind of life is that? Every soul on earth deserves to have a job of their choosing, free of physical endangerment and denigration.
Balram’s devious ways aren’t inherent; they manifest from gainful opportunity, such as tricking a system designed to keep the impoverished below the financial autonomy threshold. Those who rely on others to cap their earnings are destined to be ruled by these gatekeepers forever. It takes someone of independent willpower, an aberration in the cog of tradition and complacency, a unique “white tiger” like Balram Halwai, to escape the “chicken coop” and thrive in the light that is self-determination. Gourav’s tour-de-force performance should inspire us all to value our independence, realize that political philosophies are only beneficial if they reward equitably, and practice compassion for those who might commit petty crimes just to preserve their health and dignity.