Film Review – The White Tiger
The White Tiger
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger (2021) is a pitch-black look at the harsh economic divisions of Indian society. It starts off as a dark comedy – a satire lampooning the caste system that prevents many from rising above their class standing. But as the story unfolds, we see a disturbing tone start to emerge. Bahrani makes no compromises – while he goes to unsettling places, his narrative control makes us believe these characters’ journeys. The comedy and lightheartedness dissolves into serious and sinister territory, showing the lengths some are willing to go through to escape poverty and the evil others embrace to maintain their position.
Adapting Aravind Adiga’s book, Bahrani establishes his film almost as a direct counterargument to Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Where that film had its protagonist ascend above their station through a romantic fantasy, The White Tiger takes a far more cynical approach. There is no gameshow that will magically save someone from poverty here. If someone wants to gain wealth and privilege they have to go and take it, it will not be handed to them. The image of a chicken coop is used as a running allegory. The chickens can see in plain view others being slaughtered for food, but don’t panic or fight back. The idea is translated to the majority of Indian people who live in poverty. They’ve become so accustomed to meager wages and the oppression of landowners that pushing back against the status quo would be like committing a sin.
That is not the case for Balram (Adarsh Gourav). Balram is a self-proclaimed “entrepreneur” who was born into a low caste family. From the very beginning of his life, Balram was discouraged from thinking independently. Getting an education and advancing socially was looked down upon. Instead, he was encouraged to work right away, give all of his earnings to the family, and enter an arranged marriage. But Balram’s determination would not allow him to get stuck in one spot. He is always plotting, scheming, thinking of ways to get out. His opportunity comes from his town’s landowners. Balram inserts himself into their company as the family’s driver and servant, working directly under Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) – heir to the family fortune – and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas).
The plot is structured in flashback, told in narration by Balram in the form of an email to the visiting Chinese prime minister. The setup is a little daft (that is one long email) but it allows the editing (Bahrani, Tim Streeto) to jump back and forth in time from Balram’s perspective. We see his thoughts and feelings as a person growing up in a small hut to working in big fancy hotels in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It also allows us to see Balram’s realization of how the upperclass views lower caste people. Ashok openly describes Balram as having a “half baked” mind. Balram faces the cruel reality that the rich exploit the poor only for their own benefit, and that the poor have been brainwashed into accepting their servitude. Some of the most powerful moments are also the smallest, such as when Balram questions why his father never taught him to brush his teeth.
But Balram is not a stupid person. In fact, his street smarts, quick wit, and ability to adapt not only put him shoulder to shoulder with the rich and powerful but have also given him the opportunity to make something of himself. He manipulates the system to gain favor among Ashok’s family. When Balram discovers that the family only sees him as a tool and not as a human, he takes matters into his own hands. Balram belongs in the same ballpark as other characters who will do anything to get what they want. He’s cut from the same cloth as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or Louise Bloom from Nightcrawler (2014). Adarsh Gourav delivers a standout performance as Balram. He is charismatic, funny, and troubled. Balram is both affected by his environment and affects it in return. In any other circumstance he could have grown up to be a normal, well-adjusted person, but fate has dealt him a hand that leads to much darker places. Notice how Gourav injects more and more tension into the performance, like a rubber band ready to snap. While we may not agree with what happens to Balram, the strength of the writing, direction, and acting makes the transformation understandable.
Is The White Tiger a warning for the one percenters? Is it saying that the very rich must learn to see and respect the rest of society, or risk the chance of them breaking out of their hypnosis and fighting back? Or is it a warning for those who allow greed and social status to dictate their lives? Is it trying to say that the obsession for wealth can eat away a person’s very soul? The film seems to hover between these two points. We aren’t sure if, by the end, Balram is a hero or villain – maybe that’s the point. Regardless of what side a viewer takes, one thing is certain: no one wants to be in the chicken coop.