Based on the 2008 New York Times bestseller of the same name, The White Tiger tells the spirited story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a successful young businessman thriving in modern-day Bangalore. Narrating his own tale in voiceover, we flash back to Balram’s early life fighting to survive in an impoverished Indian village after losing his father to tuberculosis. After a fortuitous run-in with a wealthy landlord, the resourceful Balram becomes a full-time driver for the solicitous Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his free-spirited wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). The arrangement seems to be going well, until a night of recklessness forces Balram to reassess his relationship with his rich employers and the unequal society that keeps its most affluent citizens immune from consequences.
The film is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who made a splash in critics circles during the mid-2000s with acclaimed independent features like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those two movies just barely broke the 80 minute mark, The White Tiger comes in at a much heftier 125 minute runtime and more often than not, its length can be felt. Though he has an accessible and exciting story in his hands, Bahrani seems slavishly devoted to each of the novel’s plot points and its dense themes involving social classism and globalization. The stylistic touches, like its evocation of the eye-rolling “you’re probably wondering how I got here” trope at the film’s opening, make the theatrics of Danny Boyle’s films seem like the stuff of genius by comparison.
Fortunately, Bahrani is adapting some sturdy material and Aravind Adiga’s novel gives the film plenty of hearty fodder to feed this robust rags-to-riches story. Its title, a reference to a rare and magnificent beast to which Balram is compared at a young age, is just one of the animal-based metaphors that is used to symbolize the perils of a seemingly impenetrable caste system. Balram explains India’s poor class as existing in a “rooster coop”, waiting at the market to get slaughtered one at a time, yearning for freedom while being unable or unwilling to escape from their daunting enclosure. But the tone of Balram’s narration doesn’t resemble that of a maudlin requiem for upward mobility; he often peppers in dark humor and irony to affably recontextualize his struggles and those of his people.
As the savvy protagonist, Adarsh Gourav lends a stirring mixture of down-and-out pathos and cheeky resilience to his compelling lead performance. Rajkummar Rao is equally winsome in his portrayal of a well-to-do tech mogul who takes Balram under his wing and gets closer to him than even he suspects. In a role that could have been one-dimensional and cloying, Priyanka Chopra conveys layers of conflict for a young woman torn between her roots in the United States and her charmed life in India. Each of the main three actors have an easy chemistry with one another, gratifying in times when affinity brings them together and heartbreaking in the moments when discord draws them apart.
With its story of a desperate driver looking to get in with a rich family, The White Tiger bears thematic resemblance with last year’s outstanding Best Picture winner Parasite but it lacks that film’s propulsive sense of narrative urgency. Since Bahrani gives us glimpses of both the film’s climax and ending within the first 10 minutes, there isn’t very much suspense built into how things play out. Even though this is more of a coming-of-age drama than a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Parasite, stakes still matter and I would have preferred to have been kept in suspense rather than waiting for the inevitable denouement. Netflix recently announced they’ll be releasing at least one new movie every week in 2021 and if The White Tiger is any indication, they’d do well to focus on quality over quantity.
Score – 3/5
Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is No Man’s Land, a modern Western starring Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell about a young man who flees to Mexico after accidentally killing an immigrant along the Mexico-Texas border.
Also available to rent digitally is Our Friend, a dramedy starring Jason Segel and Casey Affleck about a couple who finds unexpected support from their best friend after they receive life-changing news.
Debuting on Hulu is In & Of Itself, a filmed version of illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s Off-Broadway one-man stage show which explores themes of identity and illusion.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup