“The White Tiger shines in its smaller moments,” says Sohel Sarkar, “but it is undeniably reductive.”
In 2015, Indian actor Salman Khan was convicted for killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run crash in Mumbai, a whopping 13 years after the accident took place.
Why did it take so long to reach a verdict? Well, because justice can be extremely malleable for those on the right side of power. In fact, just months later, Khan was acquitted by a higher court on the grounds of “not wholly reliable” testimonies. And, during the decade-long trial, his defence lawyers tried to pin the blame on the actor’s driver despite several eyewitness accounts to the contrary.
Netflix’s The White Tiger, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s book of the same name, begins with an eerily similar accident. In fact, it serves as the film’s macabre plot twist and sets its protagonist, the driver-and-servant Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), on a radically different path.
For once, Balram is not in the driver’s seat but a passenger when Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the wife of his US-educated employer Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), takes the wheel in a drunken joyride.
In what is easily one of the film’s more shocking moments, she hits a child in a poorer part of the city.
And the fallout from the tragedy transforms Balram from the submissive servant to a self-made entrepreneur
The White Tiger’s backdrop is India of the 2000s: a growing outsourcing hub with Bangalore as its nerve centre, and a society divided between a consumerist urban elite and a marginalised rural poor.
And, much as we see in the original book, the story is told through a series of letters penned by Balram about his journey from a teashop waiter to a tech entrepreneur.
“I offer to tell you free of charge the truth about India by telling you the story of my life,” he writes, setting in motion a narrative that gallops between Laxmangarh, Dhanbad, Delhi, and Bangalore.
Born in the “India of Darkness”, his family’s catastrophic poverty forces the young Balram (Harshit Mahawar) to drop out of school. Over time, he becomes warily aware of the wealthy landlord family that presides over the wretchedness of his entire village, collecting illegal rents from poor villagers while making millions exporting coal to China and offering bags of cash as bribes to the country’s political elite.
The family is headed by the feudal patriarch, nicknamed the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), and his boorish elder son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), who stand in contrast to the seemingly more liberal younger son Ashok and his wife Pinky.
Determined to avoid the dead-end fates of his father (Satish Kumar) and brother (Sanket Shanware), the ambitious Balram grovels strategically to this overlord family to make his way into “the India of Light” as personal driver to Ashok and Pinky, arriving with them to the national capital of Delhi.
What follows is a searing tale of power – those who have it and cling to it at all costs, and those who don’t and spend their lives grasping at vestiges of it. The film (and the novel) explains this lopsided power struggle rooted in caste and class by delving into the psychology of servitude through the metaphor of a rooster coop (“They can see and smell the blood; they know they are next, and yet they don’t rebel.”).
But what Balram calls “the contented smile that comes to the lips of a servant who has done his duty by his master” is not about contentment at all. It is a reflex of servitude (“bred into me, poured into my blood, hammered into my soul”).
It is also a necessary act of survival – a vacant grin held in place while the servant considers how he himself might one day become the master.
The White Tiger may remind viewers of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, and not just because Balram lives in the dank, underground basement of one the city’s several luxury highrises while his employers occupy the airy, plush penthouse.
Rather, it’s because, much like Parasite’s Park family, Ashok and Pinky pride themselves in being kind to their servants… but only when it suits them. If they find themselves in a tight spot, they revert to a position of feudal opportunism.
And their liberal-mindedness? It’s patronising, not to mention tinged with a privileged entitlement they remain completely oblivious to.
“I wish I had a simple life like you, Balram,” Ashok says in a tone-deaf moment of drunken self-pity.
However, while Ramin Bahrani’s film casts an empathetic look at those left behind by conventional ideas of ‘progress’, there are moments where it falters. And the film’s weakest links are well and truly embedded in the original book itself.
This is no doubt because Adiga – a middle-class, Chennai-born writer who attended Columbia and Oxford before working for Time magazine – is writing about a lived experience considerably removed from his own and often resorts to unambiguous binaries (“I am in the Light now, but I was born and raised in Darkness”, “These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies”).
The book, too, relies on well-worn stereotypes (elections determined by a single man stamping ballots), and caricaturish characters (corrupt politicians, ruthless elite). As such, what begins as an indictment of India’s endemic inequity and corruption eventually becomes yet another story of entrepreneurial triumph. Indeed, the titlular ‘white tiger’ refers to that rare individual who can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, no matter their background.
By staying steadfastly faithful to the source material, the film repeats these sadly reductive accounts. Which explains why the ending feels almost glib, veering into the excesses of the gangster genre.
Still, the film shines in its smaller moments; the vulnerability of Balram’s rival driver who must hide his Muslim faith to keep a low-paid job; Balram retreating into the gilded elevator in Ashok’s apartment building to pinch his hand to keep from crying, or channeling his own desperation by losing his mind at a beggar woman on the streets.
And Adarsh Gourav as Balram carries the film on his shoulders, perfectly balancing notes of ambition and cunning beneath the scraping and ingratiating smiles of the servant. He convincingly pulls off the roguish vibes of the self-made entrepreneur.
If only for this performance, Bahrani’s film is eminently watchable.