DIRECTED BY: Ramin Bahrani
STARRING: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar, Nalneesh Neel, Vijay Maurya, Kamlesh Gill and Swaroop Sampat
The ambitious driver for a rich Indian family uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty and become an entrepreneur.
Balram Halwai narrates his epic and darkly humorous rise from poor villager to successful entrepreneur in modern India. Cunning and ambitious, our young hero jockeys his way into becoming a driver for Ashok and Pinky, who have just returned from America. Society has trained Balram to be one thing, a servant, so he makes himself indispensable to his rich masters. But after a night of betrayal, he realises the corrupt lengths they will go to trap him and save themselves. On the verge of losing everything, Balram rebels against a rigged and unequal system to rise up and become a new kind of master.
The White Tiger is the film adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name that is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. Set primarily in Delhi, India, the film focuses on Balram Halwai, who narrates his rise from a poor villager that schemes his way into becoming a driver for the son of the village landlord, to becoming a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore.
With a brief flashback to open the film, we see Balram Halwai narrating his life story by writing (typing) a letter to the Chinese Premier who is visiting India, citing how he grew up in the rural town of Laxmangarh and is now an entrepreneur. But how did this kid that grew up in poverty become the self-made entrepreneur that he is today? We see how intelligent young Balram is at school but is pulled to do work at the village by his grandmother. Witnessing his father die of tuberculosis and his brother forced into an arranged marriage, he eavesdrops on a conversation about the village’s landlord looking for a second driver as his son Ashok has returned from America and as he convinces his grandmother to give him the money for driving lessons, Balram talks his way into the position…but is burdened with more than he expected. Made to do extra work outside of driving, from cleaning rugs to rubbing the legs of the Stork, the village’s landlord, he’s continuously belittled by the Stork, the Mongoose, and Balram also continuously belittles himself in order to obtain the family’s approval. But as he spends time with the family, particularly the Stork’s son Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, his attitude towards them begins to change and slowly his contain anger and rage grows until it’s inevitably unleashed.
Balram’s interactions with Ashok and Pinky Madam is where the film really picked up for me however. This was a couple that come back to India with modern viewpoints of the world after their time spent in America, and they argue with the Stork and Mongoose over their treatment towards Balram, and they encourage Balram to better and stand up for himself, not to let their family members belittle him and yet, their words of encouragement feel empty due to their actions. They talk a good game about how outdated their family traditions and values of Indian life are, yet its the way that when they treat Balram, it feels like it’s only to make themselves feel better, and better still they still have that stance of feeling superior to him as they verbally belittle him when he just appears during a moment of inconvenience. The film is confidently directed by Ramin Bahrani, as it opens up brimming with energy and colourful imagery, complimented by Paolo Carnera’s cinematography work. It highlights and examines caste and poverty in India in a manner that it shows how difficult it is to break out of that life and subjectively the lengths Balram will go to to get out of that predicament.
Adarsh Gourav gives a commanding and complex performance as Balram Halwai, who with every grin he appears to have in front of his ‘masters’ you can’t help but feel that it’s all a facade from him and it’s interesting to watch his character arc over the course of the film. Rajkummar Rao also gives a good performance as Ashok, who appears to be a decent enough guy if you met him for a small interaction, but is layered with hypocrisy as he becomes corrupt over the course of his return to India. Priyanka Chopra also gives another really good, layered performance as Pinky Madam, who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and others (such as Balram and her husband). I did believe however that the film felt oversaturated with its use of narration and there is one metaphor that’s repeated over the course of the film but it really translate from book to film for me here (i.e the chicken coop metaphor). The film also pretty much builds towards the final act and while you can guess where it leads, it does feel like the film takes too long to reach that point within its over two hour runtime, yet ultimately I wanted to know what happened to Balram next once the credits rolled.
Ramin Bahrani’s direction in The White Tiger confidently brings to life Adiga’s novel of social commentary on the Indian caste system with black-humour and energy. The performances from Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao make this worthwhile viewing.