Early in Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning satirical novel, our protagonist, Balram (Adarsh Gourav) explains that an Indian entrepreneur must be “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.” That attitude defines the tone of Bahrani’s film, a blackly comic tale of Balram’s rise from impoverished villager to business owner. Like Balram, The White Tiger is a shifty film, shot through with white-hot rage over class and the putrefying nature of capitalistic concepts of success.
In somewhat cliched-but-effective fashion, The White Tiger starts with a record-scratch moment. A car barrels down the streets of 2007 Delhi. Balram sits in the back,wearing a maharajah costume, while his employer, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his intoxicated wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) careen down the dark road. The wealthy folks behind the wheel are having a great time, but Balram’s growing anxiety proves correct when Pinky hits and kills a child who runs into the street.
The next image of Balram is wildly different. No longer wearing antiquated formal dress, he sits in his own office, sporting a suit, ponytail and glass of Johnny Walker. As he drafts a letter to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao trying to get an audience, Balram connects the distance between these points. He details his impoverished childhood and thwarted educational potential at the hands of the local landlord. Later, Balram goes to work for that landlord, and uses machiavellian tactics to become a driver for Ashok and Pinky, newly arrived from America. After the accident that begins the film, Balram’s attempts to earn favor turn to resentment.
Bahrani uses his trademark naturalism to give us a gritty street-level view of a westernized Delhi, contrasted with the high-gloss finishes of the homes Balram’s employers live in. The film’s most impressive visual, however, is Balram himself. Gourav’s impassive face occupies nearly every frame, never betraying the emotions going on under the surface. His story is easy to empathize with, but his caginess makes him almost impossible to fully trust. We know he’s capable of unethical, selfish behavior, but given the way he’s treated by everyone–his family, employers and co-workers–and the suffocating rigidity of the class structure he’s born into, it’s hard to blame him.
Much easier to judge is the hypocrisy of Ashok and Pinky, who claim relatively progressive values, but continually fail to see members of the lower class as fully realized people. Jonas and Rao are great at pulling that switch, going from affable to spoiled and judgmental in seconds. As with another Bahrani film, 99 Homes, desperate situations reveal characters for the deeply flawed people they are, and with Pinky any pretense of allyship with Balram is dropped as she lets Ashok’s family coerce him into signing a confession to get her off the hook for the accident.
The White Tiger loses some much-needed momentum in its final third, spending more time than necessary on the unraveling relationship between Balram, Pinky and Ashok, rather than getting to the inevitable climax. However, Bahrani still manages to plumb some fascinating psychological and sociological depths, making relevant satire out of economic globalization while never losing sight of the people that globalization effects most. The knifelike story gets a little dull, but its ending still manages to sting.
“The White Tiger” streams Friday on Netflix.