By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Currently playing in some theaters and available for streaming on Netflix on January 22, 2021, this Indian drama adamantly sets itself apart from another Indian underdog story (Slumdog Millionaire) by having its protagonist and narrator state that this isn’t the same type of feel-good story. Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), an initially humble lower caste Indian living in poverty with his family and how he would eventually rise to become a wealthy and powerful businessman. Though the style and story have some familiarities, the solid writing and tight direction by Bahrani, in addition to an impressive turn by Gourav, allow this compelling and riveting film to stand on its own.
Born into poverty, Balrami Halwai has always dreamed and aspired to achieve the wealth and success that the people from higher castes have managed to maintain for generations. Much like his father, Balrami refuses to completely confirm to the class system that has hindered the impoverished of India for so long. However, he knows that he will definitely need to somehow infiltrate the upper class to accomplish his goals. He sees an opportunity when he first encounters the younger and more progressive son of his landlord, the charming and more Western Ashok (Rajkummar Rao)
Knowing that the only way someone like himself can get close to a higher class person like Ashok is by becoming a servant, Balrami ambitiously manages to get a job as a driver for Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). As he works the job with much enthusiasm and an eager-to-please attitude, Balrami takes to his job well, but soon discovers that the corruption that permeates Ashok’s family could very threaten and destroy any of his hopes and dreams of climbing the social ladder. When an unexpected accident occurs at the fault of Ashok and Pinky, Balrami faces taking the blame for the tragedy.
Based on the novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, Ramin Bahrani’s film is a sometimes dark and gritty underdog tale with a sly wit and a highly enjoyable sense of humor. At the same time, the film offers a smart commentary on the class system of India that continues to keep the rich and corrupt in power while squashing any opportunities for advancement among the poor. Balrami Hawai’s background, though fictional, has some genuine foundations and inspiration in the stories of the real, lower caste people in India. The film offers these people a ray of hope, but also with some cautionary lessons. Balrami has to get his hands very dirty in order to rise above his situation.
This element makes the story feel all too real with just the right amount of dark underbelly. The movie’s story makes good on its promise that this isn’t Slumdog Millionaire. Balrami Halwai eventually gets into a position of power, but in order to do so, he must make his deal with the devil.
That’s what really helps to make this movie come across as a genuine representation of real world problems. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani stays true to the realism of the story. And he presents the movie in a way that is polished, but still gritty and grimy. Even the more glitzy scenes have slightly hellish feel to them. As glamorous as the life of the wealthy is in the movie, everyone has their hands in the dirt, and not everyone is completely happy.
I was genuinely impressed with actor Adarsh Gourav who portrays the role of Balrami so well. To his character, he brings a take to the character that is richly layered. The audience sees the wide-eyed innocence blended with ambition, but also a sly attitiude of someone on the hunt for what he is lacking. The film also stars Priyanka Chopra as Pinky and Rajkummar Kao as Ashok. Both actors offer solid performances here with Kao being more of a standout. The actor superbly emulates the conflict he has within him. He wishes to bring more Western/American sensibilities to his family, but his family’s strict adherence to tradition and the more archaic philosophies of the wealthy will never let Ashok forget who he is in India.
The White Tiger is definitely a movie I highly recommend. It is funny, tense, dramatic and realistic. Though it is no Parasite, it still offers a riveting story with great social commentary about a country with a class system that continues to keep its poor enslaved and powerless.