The White Tiger

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The White Tiger
"Due to his lower caste position, Balram has been conditioned since birth to obey, even when we can see it is tearing him up inside - and Gourav does an excellent job of showing how this pushes him to the brink of madness." | Photo: Netflix

It seems oddly fitting that it would be Rahmin Bahrani who would adapt this film for the big screen since the author of the Man Booker prize novel it is based on, Aravind Adiga, has known the filmmaker for years and, in fact, dedicated the book to him. Add to that its subject matter, concerning poverty and poverty traps - including those of the mind - and it is is also fully in keeping thematically with Bahrani's earlier work, including Man Push Cart and 99 Homes, in that it shows how just getting by can be a Sisyphean task in itself for the underclass.

I'm not usually a fan of voiceover but Bahrani uses it consistently here as a useful framing device - an email, which his hero Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is writing to the Chinese premier, recounting his life story. This means Bahrani is able to start towards the climax of his tale, in a fast-moving car, before rewinding back to show how Balram came from a tiny rural village to be dressed like a maharaja in the back seat. It also allows us to spot the difference between what Balram says and what he remembers. The break-neck moment from the start, supplies a tension to the rest of the story, as we know where things are heading, although the screenplay, as is often the case with Netflix productions, is a little baggy in places.

Copy picture

The real crux of the tale is how Balram manages to become wealthy enough to be writing that email, but first it charts his path to becoming the number one driver for local, corrupt landowner The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), and his sons, in particular, the youngest Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) - who have just returned from America and fancy themselves to have a more modern mindset, attitudes gradually shown to be dripping in hypocrisy and irony. The film hinges not so much on dichotomy between rich and poor as that between the obeyed and the obeyers, as Bahrani explores the idea that roosters somehow refuse to escape a coop - and death - even if the opportunity is offered, with people managing it as rare as the white tiger of the title. Due to his lower caste position, Balram has been conditioned since birth to obey, even when we can see it is tearing him up inside - and Gourav does an excellent job of showing how this pushes him to the brink of madness, as the cracks begin to show not only in his obedient veneer but also in his mental state. It's his journey of breaking the chains we begin to root for, even if it means tapping into the dark side to do it.

The action is matter-of-fact about poverty in India, shot with flare and grit by Italian DoP Paolo Carnera, while also laying bear the deep irony of the repeated phrase that the country has the "world's oldest democracy" as we see how money talks almost from the off. But this isn't a place where pennies fall from heaven, like in Slumdog Millionaire, on the contrary, they must be schemed for and if Balram goes to extreme lengths, we can see how those actions are fully borne out of the way he has been treated.

Reviewed on: 21 Jan 2021
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A man recalls his rise from poverty in an Indian village to being a successful entrepreneur.

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