The White Tiger (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★
Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.
Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” based upon the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga, is the type of rags-to-riches story that gathers quiet power. We know where it must begin—a poor child living in an obscure village who dreams of making it big one day—and where it must end—a man wearing an expensive suit and a solemn expression—yet when it is time to make a statement about modern India, particularly the ever-growing chasm between the privileged “masters” and the working class “servants” in relation to traditionalism, capitalism, political and moral corruption, it is consistently sharp, occasionally subversive, and surprisingly emotional. This is an angry picture that employs elements of feel-good entertainment as a mask.
Adarsh Gourav plays Balram who makes it his goal to become a driver for the family of a local coal baron—even though he does not know how to drive. Balram considers this job as a stepping stone for better opportunities therefore a means of pulling himself—and his family—out of poverty. Proving to be highly determined and a quick learner, Balram learns how to drive (with thanks to grandmother’s two hundred rupees) and is assigned as a chauffeur for the baron’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned to India, along with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), after having just finished his education in the United States. Balram looks to Ashok as a model for success: well-traveled, wealthy, educated; it is curious how this relationship develops. We know, too, how it might end for them.
Gourav portrays Balram with an infectious goodness and so we cannot help but to root for his success. But most wonderful about the performance are the quiet and telling moments in which those eyes remind us with stunning clarity that although there is an inherent lightness to Balram, he is an opportunist. This trait is ingrained in him because of where he comes from, the subconscious lessons he absorbs when the poor turns against its own, when even your own family can get in the way of your happiness and the great things you wish to accomplish. He is always watching, learning, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get ahead of the pack. Because we are provided a true understanding of Balram’s cunning nature, this character stands out from stories of this type.
The movie is not afraid to underscore the clear divide between the rich and the poor outside of where they live, the clothes on their back, the food they eat, and how dirty or clean they look. While also important, these are surface characteristics. Heartbreaking moments come in the form our protagonist time and again—like a dumb dog—somehow believing that he is considered to be a friend by those he serves because they have begun to treat him relatively well when things are good.
But when his masters feel the grip of their problems tightening around their throats, they lash out at the defenseless, at people like Balram who will take the blow—metaphorical and literal—because either they feel they do not have a choice (your replacement is always waiting) or that they feel it is simply a part of the job description. At times servants are treated worse than animals. I spent part of my childhood in Asia and I appreciated that this aspect of the story is observed with unblinking honesty without melodrama—as if to say, “Here’s the reality. Do what you want with it.” (The Chopra character, who grew up in New York City, provides the western voice/outrage, especially in regard to the employer-employee abuse.)
Although a rags-to-riches story on the surface, I loved how the picture does not necessarily leave all of us with a happy feeling. I think the final act’s emotional power lies in the sacrifices Balram has made to the point where we barely recognize the lively, optimistic boy we met in the village. Sure, he has the business, he has the clothes, he has the money… but what else? If your definition of being successful is divorced from money and luxury, the picture will leave you a sort of cold feeling. Balram may have pulled himself out of poverty, but it is demonstrated to us, in subtle ways, that perhaps he is stuck in another hole. Maybe he just doesn’t know it yet.