The majestic and rare white Bengal tiger may serve as a source of inspiration for Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver-turned-businessman, but it is the rooster that will leave a lasting image for viewers of Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger. Used as a metaphor for those in the lower rungs of India’s caste system, the rooster is forever entrapped in the coop of servitude. It remains loyal even when its master deems it is time to go to the slaughter. Balram’s birth place destined him to be one of these roosters, but as he eventually discovers, complacency is a chromosome missing from his DNA.
Born into a poor village overseen by a ruthless landlord, The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), Balram always had a desire to reshuffle the cards life dealt him. Seeing an opportunity to bring back a level of respect to his family, the ambitious young man manages to secure a job as a driver for The Stork’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Keeping his ear to the ground and eyes wide open, the lowly “country mouse” gets a crash course in how the other side lives. What he slowly realizes though, is that hard work, the bedrock of the democratic ideals he was taught as a child, has little value in a society where capitalism, political influence and corruption are the main currency.
For this pauper to become a prince, Balram must learn how to cheat the system while playing a dangerous game that could get him and his entire family killed.
Bahrani’s film may openly take jabs at another rags to riches tale set in India, but The White Tiger is more Scarface by way of Parasite than it is Slumdog Millionaire. There is no million-rupee game show prize or dream girl to bail Balram out of the complicated predicaments that he finds himself in. Instead, this adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s award-winning novel offers an honest, if at times satirical, look at a system that is keeping millions of people pinned under the dirty feet of the rich. As much as Bahrani’s protagonist remarks that India is a democratic country and praises the boldness of a beloved socialist political candidate, the film does not hold back its scathing criticism of how capitalism has eroded democracy in India.
Even those who are seemingly championing uplifting the poor are not above indulging in the benefits of a corrupt system. When the flames of responsibility threaten to burn a reckless Ashok and Pinky, they do not hesitate to cloak themselves in the safety blanket of the caste system. In observing the hypocrisy of the world that Balram resides, one can understand why the film’s once honest hero would revel in becoming a villain.
Of course, in Balram’s eyes, such labels would be unjust. As he writes in his email to then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, which serves as the basis for the film’s narration, he sees himself as an entrepreneur. A man who knows how to use the smallest crack to pry the door of success wide open. While men such as Ashok are “born with opportunities to waste,” rare tigers like Balram only come around once in a generation; at least that is what he fools himself into believing.
As cinema routinely proves, and Bahrani touches on in previous films, hustlers and opportunists like Balram are plentiful in the world. However, Balram never feels as ruthless or as brash as other cinematic social climbers such as Scarface’s Tony Montana or The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort. Instead, Gourav’s strong performance, which effortless glides from earnest naiveté to arrogance, creates a surprisingly relatable character, even when he veers off the once respectable trail.
As engaging as Gourav’s performance is, Bahrani’s film struggles to find its footing in the latter acts. The once brisk pacing slows to a crawl as the film meanders while trying to build tension for an act that many viewers will see coming long before Balram does. These sluggish sections take away some of the delicious bite that the social commentary created in the first half of the film.
Fortunately, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Bahrani does a good job of detailing the harsh realities, including numerous human rights violations, of modern India’s class structure. Whether it is the threats of violence from Ashok’s older brother or being relegated to sleeping in the servant’s shanty town that exists in the hotel’s underground parking lot, Balram is frequently reminded of his place is society at every turn. The White Tiger may lack a truly ferocious roar, but that does not make its political claws any less sharp.