‘The White Tiger’ Review: Don’t Call Him a Slumdog
According to Balram, a wealthy young businessman from Bangalore, “the Indian entrepreneur” must be a combination of opposites: “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, cunning and sincere”. He explains this in a letter to the Chinese Prime Minister, which also acts as the voice-over narration for “The White Tiger”, Ramin Bahrani’s troubled new film, which itself is a mixture of different elements. Based on Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel, the film is part satire, part melodrama, a criminal parable that uses the story of Balram’s improbable rise to indict the injustices of the society that created it.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav) wrote his letter in 2010 and addressed it to Wen Jiabao, China’s then Prime Minister. Most of the action – the events that brought Balram out of poverty to his current status – took place a few years earlier in Delhi and the rural village where he grew up. Nevertheless, “The White Tiger” is bursting with present energy. History has only confirmed the signs that Balram, a shrewd self-taught flood of happiness, sees around him. “The white man,” he writes to Wen, is on the way down, while India and China, “the yellow and the brown man” are on the rise.
But geopolitics is not its main concern. For most of his life, Balram was preoccupied with survival, understanding his place in a cruel system, and finding a way to escape. Born into a caste of confectionery makers, he quickly concludes that the complex stratification of Indian society has transformed into a simpler hierarchy of masters and servants. His preferred metaphor for the condition of the poor is “the cockpit”. He and his fellow human beings are crammed together, pecking and screeching, waiting to see who will be slaughtered next.
The title of the film suggests another metaphor that Balram clings to through years of suffering and hardship. A white tiger is a rare phenomenon that only occurs once in a generation. The idea is that in a country defined by rigid inequality, a self-made man is that type of beast.
You may recall another English language film in India whose hero has taken a similar path, and “The White Tiger” sometimes positions itself explicitly as an answer to “Slumdog Millionaire”. It is not luck, courage or happy coincidence that drives Balram from his ragged beginnings to a smooth triumph, but cunning, despair and a cold bloodedness that can disguise itself as submission. The ghost of Charles Dickens that hovered over Slumdog was banished; Bahrani’s literary reference points (and Adigas) tend more towards Dreiser, Dostoevsky, and “native son”.
Balram receives early training in injustice. His father’s death forces him to give up a scholarship and work in a tea shop. Balram is under the thumb of Grandma (Kamlesh Gill), the family matriarch, but the local landlord (known as the Storch) and his executors (including the fearsome mongoose) wield real power. The nominal political authority belongs to a figure identified only as “The Great Socialist” (Swaroop Sampat) and whose ideology does not prevent them from accepting bribes from old-school feudalists.
Our young hero manages to get a job as the stork’s secondary chauffeur. While he sometimes crosses with the stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and the mongoose (Vijay Maurya), he spends most of his work in the comparatively pleasant company of the boss’s newly returned son and daughter-in-law. Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) represent a modern, cosmopolitan variant of the traditional ruling class. They don’t like the harsh way the stork treats Balram, whose skilled subservience makes them a little uncomfortable. At the same time, Ashok seems to largely agree with the basic master-servant dichotomy and his place in it.
Is Balram happy too? He is certainly cheerful in the company of his employers, and whether his smile represents cunning or sincerity is a matter of some consequence. But while Gourav is a charming and energetic performer who is able to convey the opposing sides of Balram’s temperament, an element of inwardness is missing – a sense of the character’s struggles, desires, and motivations.
It may be that Balram does not fully trust his audience that we – that is, Wen Jiabao – have no right to his deep thoughts and private longings. This is, after all, a story told by a man with something to prove, a kind of PowerPoint presentation designed to impress the leader of an emerging superpower. Balram is aware of his status as a white tiger, that is, as a symbol.
The problem is, everyone else seems like that too. The plot is lively and the shots are vividly captured by Bahrani and cinematographer Paolo Carnera, but the characters don’t come fully to life. They are caught less by prescribed social roles than by the programmatic design of the narrative, which insists that it shows things for what they really are. If it weren’t that persistent, it might be more convincing.
The White tiger
Rated R. All types of predatory behavior. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. Watch on Netflix.