A look at the excellent, razor-sharp Indian film, The White Tiger, where a young man’s plays a long and treacherous game to outfox modern India’s rigid caste system, grinding poverty, and the intrusion of global capitalism.
While you’re swiping through Netflix’s top-ten list, remember to look a little further toward the back. There you’ll come across The White Tiger, a dark and snappy picaresque tale of rags, riches and how they intertwine. The film’s setting is not America, where such stories (ranging from Horatio Alger to What Makes Sammy Run?) are part of the national myth, but today’s India where much of this tradition-bound country has welcomed global capitalism in all its cold-eyed ruthless glory, creating a new myth to supplant the old ones.
The ”Sammy” in this story, adapted from a 2008 Booker Award-winning novel by Arvind Adiga, is Balram Hawai (Adarsh Gouav). We first meet him wearing a Maharaja costume in the back seat of an SUV as it merrily careens through city streets late at night. It’s all fun and games . . . until that fatal second when someone gets run over.
Cut to 2010, three years later. Balram sits at his laptop in the city of Bangalore, known as “the Silicon Valley of India.” No longer in anyone’s back seat, Balram is now behind the wheel of a successful taxi business. He’s writing a fawning letter of introduction to then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, begging to meet him during the premier’s upcoming state visit: “I know you Chinese are great lovers of freedom and individual liberty,” he writes without irony. “America is so yesterday . . . India and China are so tomorrow. The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.”
He then sets out to prove his point, using his own story to illustrate the story of modern India.
And a hellish and harrowing story it is. Balram comes from the far backwaters of rural India (a place called “the Darkness”) where he and his family live under the cruel thumb of his traditionalist grandmother, who, in turn, is under the thumb of the medievalist landlord/mayor, known as “the Stork,” (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his sidekick “the Mongoose” (Vijay Maurya). These bandits slap, squeeze and terrorize every penny they can from the passive villagers. There seems to be no escape from this world, which is shown, in a neat bit of symbolism, as akin to a rooster coop. But Balram is no caged rooster. Rather, as an observant teacher tells him, he’s that rarest and most beautiful of creatures, the White Tiger.
He may be “insolent,” as his grandmother puts it, but he’s also boyishly charming, plucky and ready for any opportunity. That opportunity comes with the arrival of the Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has returned, after many years in America, to help run the family coal empire. He’s brought much of America with him, including its entrepreneurial ambitions, liberal cultural values, and, crucially, his beautiful wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), another Indian emigrant who’s become thoroughly Americanized, an outspoken independent feminist out of place in the patriarchal culture of her husbands’ family. The couple shine with youthful integrity and are shocked at the corruption that bleeds through so much of daily life.
His target found, Balram hustles, charms, and maneuvers his way into the family, becoming their number-one chauffeur for Ashok and Pinky.
The relationship between Balram and Ashok and Pinky make for a tense and complex storyline, with Balram’s secret ambition the main fuse. Ashok and Pinky are certainly compassionate and alert to the indignities heaped upon Balram, but that only goes so far, especially when matters of money and power intrude. Even at their best, they still treat their loyal chauffeur as a child and remind blind to his relentless conniving (sometimes unconvincingly). They’re rather like characters from The Great Gatsby, with their careless privileged lives leaving them in a cocoon of innocence.
Sharp viewers may also notice links to Harold Pinter’s The Servant. Balram is equally confused by the pair, secretly cringing at their attempts at familiarity while simultaneously manipulating them to his own ends. He keeps his eye on the prize, gamely accepting abuse and betrayal with an amiable smile and forever obsequious manner. Poor he may be, but he matches his opponents in their ruthlessness.
Not surprisingly, he’s no Robin Hood. As he turns the table on his masters, he turns his back on his caste, class, and family while masterfully playing his long — and ultimately murderous — game. As the old saying goes, no man is a hero to his valet. And no valet can be counted on as a loyal servant.
The White Tiger is well-written and superbly made by an almost entirely Indian crew, giving it a unique insider’s view, made by people who seem to know their subject. Adarsh Gouav is excellent as Balram, though the narration that takes up much of the movie might try some viewers’ patience. The film never feels static, thanks to fluid direction by Ramin Bahrani, cinematography by Paulo Carnera and swift, graceful editing by the director and Timm Streeto, with each shot poised to create the right amount of tension. Plot, story and themes are all sharply interwoven. The film is thoroughly political but never feels didactic or hectoring, unlike similar American films, which seem unable to trust us to think for ourselves. That White Tiger has something to say as it pulls us in and keeps us there is no small accomplishment.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.