For director Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger is a great way to channel familiar themes and ideas of his into a story bursting with energy. Doubling as a darkly comedic drama, this feature presents an entertaining perspective of India, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel. True to form, Bahrani capitalizes on this story of class struggle, among other major themes, while having the chance to present a stylish piece of work. Thanks to a handle on tone and other cinematic flourishes, despite a bit of a limp ending, Bahrani is the driver of this film that delivers.
The story is narrated by Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a man introduced to us as a successful entrepreneur in modern India. As we quickly learn, Balram had to work his way up from a poor villager, pushing his way into becoming the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), the son and daughter-in-law of a wealthy and powerful man. Balram’s time spent in this environment exposes him to various forms of corruption, allowing him to realize there is a means for escaping the cycles of the life he was born into. But at what cost?
A metaphor introduced early on by Balram is the Rooster Coop. A necessary piece of equipment for Indian markets, it relates to the oppression of India’s poor, who are unwilling or unable to break away from their situation. It’s interesting how the film manages to apply this to not only Balrum but Ashok as well. It’s not just their station in life for both men in terms of class that affects them, but the role family plays in their lives. They are flawed individuals, but also smart and full of ambition. Were Balram not trying to work every angle at all times, they could be true friends and not just share a default comradery based on Balram’s servant role that divides them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a major component of the story that attracted Bahrani to the project. Looking at his earlier films, such as Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, building stories around the struggles of different social classes, let alone the role of individualism and globalization, certainly connect to The White Tiger. It’s a clear throughline too when considering other factors involving loyalty and corruption that can come into play, as also seen in Bahrani’s 99 Homes and even his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The added bonus of The White Tiger is how much of a sense of humor it has.
While not a story of gangsters, it’s hard not to think of something like Goodfellas when considering how this story is being told. Whether or not he’s a product of his society, Balram has little in the way of empathy when looking at the actions he’s either a part of or directly responsible for, not unlike Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Henry Hill. And yet, with the narration, he’s generally expressing a sense of pride in all he’s accomplished. Considering the rapid pace of everything taking place, it’s interesting to see a film find the right balance in presenting a character that could be unlikable, were it not for how we see his actions go down, let alone what’s around him.
The work by Gourav is, of course, key to the film’s success. He has just the right amount of confidence to sell both the naivety and cunning of Balram. We know he wants to get ahead and that he’s very smart, despite being removed from formal education at an early age. For an actor to play up these sorts of skills while playing down extreme emotions, there’s an interesting level of process going on to pull that off, and it works quite well here for Gourav in his first leading cinematic performance.
Roa’s work as Ashok is also quite commendable, as he has to play entitled and determined, with a wavering level of courtesy. Sometimes he respects Balram, the help. Other times he is quite rude. Not an easy line to walk while still coming off as likable. Similarly, Chopra-Jonas does well playing the more respectable character, which she bases on her time spent in America.
I’m curious how large Pinky’s role is in the book, as there’s less of an ark here, but the character takes the opportunity to express her thoughts over traditional Indian (male-centric) ways, making me wonder if the role was at all expanded, given Chopra-Jonas’ presence, and role as a producer. Either way, it adds an interesting layer to what we see when it comes to Indian life, and what power people have.
India’s role is obviously critical as well, especially given the emphasis on the caste system, traditional values, and family obligations. As the film and book are written from a certain perspective, giving an entertaining form of insight from the underclass’ viewpoint means highlighting darker aspects of one of the world’s biggest nations. That extends to government-based corruption, which could be seen controversially, though the novel was a bestselling hit and seen as one capturing the voice of people one could meet in India.
From where I sit, The White Tiger is practically playing out as South Asia’s Talented Mr. Ripley, and that’s not a bad way to tell a story. Despite the actions taken by these characters, the film is consistently entertaining. Unfortunately, it loses some steam towards the end of its two-hour runtime, but that only speaks so much to the quality of the film as a whole. Bahrani captures a particular mood quite well, allowing for an approachable yet gritty story of a young man who wanted to do nothing but ascend to the top, or at least flee the coop.