Is this just another passive servant movie, like Gone With the Wind, The Help, or Roma? Or does it have a new kick?
In 2008, Indian/Australian author Aravind Adiga wrote his debut novel The White Tiger, and its thoughtful examination of the India’s caste system was rewarded with a prestigious Man Booker Prize. The book’s protagonist is a scrappy lower-class man trying to get ahead in life and hemmed in by societal norms. Though that premise is far from the Adiga’s personal experience as a Columbia and Oxford educated journalist/writer, the novelist manages to grasp the culture, psyche and ambition of his central character who’s a bit like an ambitious pauper from a Dickens tale.
Balram Halwai (Harshit Mahawar), a studious boy, is heartbroken when he is forced to drop out his rural elementary school to work and support his family. Throughout his youth and teenage years, he labors at menial jobs, eventually becoming a waiter in a tea shop. As a determined young adult, Balram (Adarsh Gourav) seizes an opportunity to become a driver for a wealthy family, maneuvering his way into the spot.
The rich clan’s patriarch is a smarmy landlord who regularly pays off government officials and treats his staff like animals. Balram sets his sights on being the lead chauffeur for the man’s adult businessman son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has just arrived back in Delhi from the U.S. with his girlfriend Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The couple, with their haughty Western attitudes, experience culture clash. They abhor the rigid social system and wince when the family treats Balram like a dog. Until they do the same. None of this goes unnoticed by the nearly illiterate but very observant Balram. He absorbs, learns and hatches plans. He will conquer. In the meantime, it’s yes sir, bow your head, kiss feet, appear selfless—and scheme.
When he shucks and jives for his bosses and idolizes them it’s as saddening as it is repulsive. Balram: “My master’s fruit-flavored perfume flowed through my nostrils.” As the vile, self-centered family continues to beat him down, you understand how his unappreciated obedience could turn into rage. This is where the story and its main character depart from the similar aforementioned films. His degradation foments bitter anger and a viperish determination. Now it’s the country mouse versus the city rats and something dangerous is brewing, which makes what’s to come increasingly engrossing.
Adiga’s keen observations on class and culture have been turned into a fairly absorbing screenplay by writer/director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop , Goodbye Solo , Fahrenheit 451). Though the filmmaker is of Iranian descent, somehow he captures the nuances of Indian life, aided by an impressive team of producers: Priyanka Chopra, Ava DuVernay and Prem Akkaraju.
Analyzing India’s 3000-year-old caste system, an artificial construct meant to split Hindus into different societal groups, could have been an overly complicated and difficult to discern endeavor. Yet somehow the film keeps its interpretation of the social ramifications pretty simple: At one point there were around 1000 caste levels, but these days there are two, effectively relegating citizens to rich or poor batches. Hence Balram’s fight to leave the impoverished side for the moneyed one will be quite a leap. Also, in this allegory, the differences between the prosperous and impoverished are more about money, education, privilege and status and not morals and values.
Yes, Balram’s bosses are disturbingly cruel and inhumane as they make him bow and scrape. But he is no angel. A protagonist who doesn’t embody goodness could be a risky narrative device. But in this case, it just makes him more fascinating: Balram out schemes the family’s number one driver by exposing the man’s secret religion, causing him to lose his job and then taking it. Balram shows no remorse. His mix of naivete and deceit makes him intriguing. Says the victor: “Is there any hate in the world like the number two servant for the number one servant?”
The footage (masterfully shot by Paolo Carnera, Gomorrah) plays like an Indian travelogue. The soundtrack (composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Ozark) with its accompanying playlist mixes traditional Indian music with modern hip-hop sounds that reflect the changing moods. Sweeping production design of hovels to luxury apartments (Chad Keith, Loving) and the beguiling art direction and set design (Yasmin Sethi and Tiya Tejpal) for various locations make every corner of India appealing—especially bustling Delhi.
If there is a technical flaw, it’s the editing (Bahrani and Tim Streeto, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). The 2 hr. 5 min length is not justified. Excessive voiceover narration (probably a crutch from the book) should have been sheared away. Audiences can see what Balram is experiencing, no need to hear all his inner thoughts. Also, viewers can imagine the situations Balram describes in words, no need to add superfluous visuals (e.g., the potential massacre of his family).
Adarsh Gourav has an extensive musical background fronting heavy metal bands and has acted on TV series and in a few films. He takes that talent to another level as the wiry survivalist who is either achingly subservient or astonishingly cunning. It’s an odd, but intriguing balance only a gifted actor could control. Chopra Jonas plays both concerned modern feminist and selfish girlfriend with the right ambiguity. Rajkummar Rao, a prolific Indian actor, interprets the nice guy/bad guy boss with just enough concern and distain. The rest of the cast is brilliant, too.
The White Tiger is like a crash course in Indian culture. Keep in mind it’s only exploring the dark side, the crime and corruption. This is not a frolicking happy-go-lucky Bollywood film, though they certainly have their merit. Instead, it is a very sobering look at how a caste system marginalizes people in ways they can barely escape.
One day at a zoo, when Balram sees a strong white tiger, he has an epiphany and consciously decides to embody the cat’s ferocious spirit. You’re ready for his transition, ready to see him take charge, but not prepared for what he does. Not at all. Unpredictability pulls this perceptive film over the rough spots. The element of surprise is a definite asset.
In select theaters January | On Netflix globally January 22nd