The White Tiger
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) introduces Bangalore as the ‘Silicon Valley of India,’ saying the U.S. is ‘so yesterday,’ the future belonging to India and China. And so on the occasion of a visit to his country by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, to learn about India’s entrepreneurial successes, Balram writes a letter he never intends to send, one in which he positions himself as the very face of this success and what it took him to achieve it as that rarity, “The White Tiger.”
Laura's Review: B
Director Rahmin Bahrani ("Goodbye Solo") has long exhibited empathy for the underclasses,from his early films like "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop" up through his housing crisis drama "99 Homes." Up until now, though, his underdogs have been entirely sympathetic. AdaptingAravind Adiga's controversial Booker Prize winning debut novel (critics have said this son of a doctor doesn’t accurately portray India’s poor, both in their language and in the very shocking cultural crime of abandoning one’s family), Bahrani presents a much greyer protagonist, one who wanders much further into the dark side to overcome his oppressors.
The theme of both the book and its cinematic adaptation is how a mindset of servitude has shaped India’s economy. Those with money and power are revered, the lower classes’ aspirations limited to basking in their favored glow via loyal and unquestioning service. After illustrating the subjugation of his village to its landlord, his hard working father dying of TB unattended by a doctor while his promise of a scholarship goes up in smoke, Balram sets his sights on the conventional ticket ‘out,’ currying favor with Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the hip, youthful son of that selfsame landlord, to become his driver.
Unlike his father, Ashok and his American raised wife Pinky Madam (2000's Miss World, Priyanka Chopra, TV's 'Quantico') have liberal views, treating Balram more as an equal than a servant. Balram plays his part, sucking up while scheming to oust his ‘superior,’ another driver of his own caste who’s been on the job for years. We see this tiger’s stripes and when, after a drunken road episode, his employers smoothly cage him by conveniently assigning blame, his fangs come out.
This sprawling, Dickensonian tale may address a particularly Indian mindset, but the travails of its protagonist will be easily recognizable to any Western country, like the United States, with a treacherously imbalanced economy, its satire of the bribe-taking ‘Great Socialist’ excepted. Gourav centers the picture, his happy embrace of the status quo slowly curdling into ruthlessness as he realizes that self preservation trumps the liberal views of his direct employers. Even his own grandmother would profit off his labors. Bahrani’s thought-provoking adaptation paints an ugly picture where the only recourse to overturning one injustice is to commit more.
Robin's Review: B
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is from the lower caste, the servant class, in India, but he is smart and ambitious and secures a job as a driver for a wealthy upper caste family. The trust and loyalty he gives to the family is not reciprocated when things go wrong and Balram becomes a scapegoat in “The White Tiger”
Director-writer Ramin Bahrani adapts the 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga about a poor but ambitious young man whose life turns into a mini epic story of success against all odds. The caste system and its inherent injustice (for the lower, not the upper, caste) is given force as Balram undergoes a transformation from loyal servant to enterprising entrepreneur.
Balram is from a poor family in a poor and remote village and has little to hope for or look forward to. But, he is smart, if illiterate, and ambitious and, when his father succumbs to TB, Balram becomes the family’s breadwinner. The town is now too small and he heads to the big city, promising to send all his pay to his granny.
Once in the city, Balram learns to drive with the plan to get a chauffeur job and be on the road to success. And, he does, ingratiating himself to the son of a wealthy landlord and taking a job as the household’s #2 driver. His plan is to become indispensible to the boss’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and his wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra), just returned from America.
The plan works and Balram thinks he has the perfect job, until a tragic event occurs and he is drawn in to it and deceived by his employer. It is up to the young man to get out of a bad situation. Underlying throughout the story are the inequities of the caste system (which we learn once consisted of hundreds of castes, each with its own purpose). Now, though, there are just the two, the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor – much like the filthy rich one percent, in America, and the rest of us, another true caste system.
The story, as I said, is a personal epic following Balram and his ambitions through the ups and downs life places before him. His attitude and desire for knowledge (and money) compel his to break out of the system designed to keep him down. You root for him, despite his cunning nature, to live his dream and how he gets there is a true rags to riches tale.
"The White Tiger" premieres in theaters on 1/8/21 and on Netflix on 1/22/2021.