Ramin Bahrani’s new film “The White Tiger”, which was released on Netflix in last week, is an unnerving social class drama about one opportunistic hero ready to do anything for getting away from his very poor background. As slowly building up the envy and anger churning inside this dude, the movie alternatively engages and disturbs us with its broad but vivid look into the social inequality and injustice inside the Indian society, and we come to understand its unlikable hero more even when observing his dark journey from the distance.
The movie begins with its hero writing a letter to be supposedly sent to a certain prominent Chinese politician who is about to visit India in 2010, and we subsequently get to know how poor he was during his childhood years in a small village located somewhere in Laxmangarh. After distinguishing himself a lot at his shabby local elementary school, Balram Halwai (Adarch Gourav) fortunately received a chance to leave his village for more education, but, alas, he was eventually forced to quit his school because he was expected to work to earn more money for his big family just like his older brother.
Several years later, Balram is still stuck in the same place and occupation, but then he spots an opportunity when the rich landlord of the village, who is nicknamed “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar), drops by the village for collecting the rents from many village people as usual. The Stork happens to be accompanied with his two sons, and Balram instantly senses that the Stork’s younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who recently returned to India along with his Indian American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), is going to need someone to drive for him and his wife, though Ashok’s family already has a private driver of their own.
After managing to persuade his greedy grandmother to give him some money for driving lesson, Balram promptly goes to the local city where the Stork and his family live, and he gets hired once he succeeds in drawing the attention of the Stork and his sons. He cheerfully empathizes a lot on how happy and willing he is to serve Ashok, and, after checking Balram’s family background a bit for not only confirmation but also having him under their control, the Stork and his family eventually decide that Balram is good enough to be hired by them.
After that point, the movie smoothly moves along with its hero as he comes to solidify his status inside the Stork’s family. While the Stork and his older son often disregard Belram, Ashok and his wife sincerely want to be nice and cordial to Belram, but, not so surprisingly, they sometimes show condescension to Belram as casually talking with Belram. Belram does not mind this much, because he can accept anything from his employers as long as he is closer to their wealth and luxury.
When Ashok and his wife move to Delhi for his family business matters, Belram naturally follows them, and he comes to observe more from how the system is fixed from the start to benefit those people with power and money only. For example, a popular politician, who is supposed to be always serving for the country and its people on the surface, turns out to be as corrupt as expected, and the Stork and his family are ready to hand some dirty money to some other prominent party to beat that politician, when that politician’s blatant demand for bribery looks too much for them.
Not so angry about what he observes from his employers and their associates, Belram still hopes that serving Ashok and his wife may lead to success and prosperity for him someday, but he is reminded again and again of how he is still being stuck in his lower social/economic stratum. Even when he is with fellow private drivers in the neighborhood, he is often disregarded by them for his rural background, and his dream remains to be out of reach as before, no matter how much he is devoted to his employers.
And then, as already shown to us from the very beginning of the film, something quite serious happens. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that incident makes Belram open his eyes more to the sobering truth about his relationship with his employers, who are ready to give him up as a scapegoat for getting away with what inadvertently happened.
As our hero warns us in advance, the mood becomes quite darker and more uncomfortable during the second half of the movie. Even after realizing how superficial his relationship with his employers really is, Belram chooses to continue to work for Ashok and his family, but he also becomes a lot more cynical than before, and then there later comes a situation of which he may take advantage for finally attaining what he has yearned for years.
As Belram constantly measures pros and cons on that, the movie, which is based on the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga, gradually accumulates more tension, and Adarsh Gourav firmly holds our attention with his subtly intense performance. Although the supporting characters in the film are more or less than broad stereotypes, the other main cast members in the film including Rajkummar Rao and Mahesh Manjrekar are mostly solid on the whole, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who also served as the co-producer of the film, brings some warmth into the story despite being stuck in a rather thankless supporting role.
In conclusion, “The White Tiger” is competent enough to hold my attention despite its several weak points including its last act which arrives at the finale a little too quickly, and it is surely another interesting work from Bahrani, who has seldom disappointed me since he drew my attention for the first time via his first three feature films “Man Push Cart” (2005), “Chop Shop” (2007), and “Goodbye Solo” (2008). Although I must say that the movie did not engage me as much as these three excellent works of his, I still admire how Bahrani tries something different here in this film, so I recommend you to give it a chance someday.