TThe White Tiger is a story of servitude, resentment and love, and what its hero calls “the smile of satisfaction that reaches the lips of a servant who has fulfilled his duty to his master.” He smiles a lot in this movie, but it’s about more than just joy. It is a professional reflection and pattern of personal subjection, a blank smile that is held in place as the servant decides whether in fact he hates his master, and while also deciding whether he might someday be the master. It’s an ambiguous smile, which makes you wonder if you hate the teacher behind a facade of love, or love this role model behind a facade of hate. And this desperate cunning and fight for survival is happening in India, which is shown to have the same ambiguously submissive attitude towards the globalized bosses of China, Britain and the United States, who want cheap labor from India for outsourcing.
The drama is adapted by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 bestseller and Booker Award winner, and Bahrani also directs it with tremendous storytelling energy. It is driven by satirical pessimism about a feudal gangster system depicted as alive and well in 21st century India, which thrives in parallel with the cynical exploitation and arrogance of other countries. Bahrani finds in this story the same battle against poverty that he gave us in Man Push Cart (2005) and a mentor-apprentice toxic bromance to compare with his 99 Homes (2014), in which the hero is also working for people that humiliated his family.
Adarsh Gourav delivers a tremendous performance as Balram, a likely boy from a poor and dirty village who once deeply impressed his teachers with his academic style, as rare as a white tiger. But his family’s catastrophic collapse into poverty meant that his education had to be abandoned, and the adult Balram is on the lookout for the wealthy landowning family presiding over their misery, clinging to their income even though they are already rich exporting coal. There’s the ax-faced patriarch nicknamed the stork (played by director and actor Mahesh Manjrekar), and the mongoose (Vijay Maurya), his rude eldest son. But there is also the more liberal and tolerant younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned from the United States with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Ruthlessly ambitious Balram is tasked with strategically creeping up this supreme family and soon lands a job as Ashok and Pinky’s personal driver, living humbly on the dank underground level of their luxurious Delhi apartment block and being treated kindly by this modern-minded one. Americanized young couple, who pride themselves on being friendly to the staff, to an extent. But a terrible accident brings their relationship, and Balram’s secret self-hatred, to a crisis.
The White Tiger is a dangerous self-improvement adventure from the bustling city streets, influenced by Adiga’s avowed love for Dickens and Balzac, and it’s a truly enjoyable story, though not without its flaws. He could have done it without Balram introducing himself through the hackneyed ’90s stills / voiceover device, ushering us into his story at his peak of car accident drama and tragedy, everything but a needle scratch on the silence. It becomes a slightly miscalculated moment of irony. And it is arguably unconvincing that, having shown us how the ruling classes can get away with it because the lower caste victims are all the same, the movie suggests that the servants could get away with it because they are all indistinguishable. It can’t be as easy as that.
But I liked Balram’s epiphany that the servant’s true relief is not dreaming that he has killed his master and then waking up to find that he has not, but dreaming that he has not timidly murdered his master and then waking up in the riches. to find, once again, what he has.
The idea of family is behind everything. Balram’s own family is of no help. Balram often claims that Ashok and Pinky are his real family and despite this being a hideous perversion of the truth, this clan of fat cats often doesn’t seem to be much more callous and indifferent than Balram’s own relatives. Tellingly, Balram shows no great interest in getting married: whatever romantic energy he has is completely subsumed in his need to submit, parasitically, to his employer. A gripping tale of feline ambition.
• The White Tiger will be on Netflix on January 22nd.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism