15 cert, 125 min. Dir: Ramin Bahrani. Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Manjrekar, Swaroop Sampat, Kamlesh Gill
The white tiger who prowls through Ramin Bahrani’s new film looks about as dangerous as a stray kitten, but he has a bite that makes you whip your fingers back. His name is Balram (Adarsh Gourav), and he’s a kindly-faced young man whose ambitions outstrip the humble peasant life his dusty Indian village affords.
Waiting for fate to deliver a Slumdog Millionaire change of fortune isn’t Balram’s style. Indeed, in his confessional voice-over, he scoffs at the very thought that “a million-rupee quiz show” might come along and solve all of his problems. Instead, when it comes to Oscar-winning tales of adversity, you’d probably peg him as more of a Parasite guy. Once he spots an opening, he burrows voraciously in.
For Balram, this is simply good entrepreneurship – and the tale of his grubby ascent, nimbly adapted by Bahrani from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, is a darkly comic thriller-parable of India’s own breakneck economic rise. It’s a much broader, more haphazard film than Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning satire. Yet it pulls off the same trick of repurposing an entire country’s class system into a kind of self-sustaining dramatic engine, capable of generating a very distinctive, engrossing strain of tension and intrigue.
After a brief cliffhanger prologue, the film opens in Bangalore in 2010, where Balram is sitting in a vaguely Scarface-like office, surrounded by all the blingy trappings of success and sporting the kind of moustache that begs to be villainously twirled.
This is a far cry from his impoverished origins out in the sticks, where the obviously bright young Balram is offered a scholarship to Delhi which he can’t accept, since his family has him breaking coals for a pittance. Later, though, another opportunity to escape presents itself: Balram is able to talk his way into a job as a chauffeur and general dogsbody to a distinguished local landlord (Mahesh Manjrekar), his cosseted adult son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and the boy’s alluring, sophisticated, New York-raised wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra).
But in order to get ahead, Balram wholeheartedly embraces the master-servant dynamic that’s inherent to the Indian caste system, fawning and cringing around his employers while stitching up his perceived rivals on the staff. Bahrani and his actors dramatise this complex and (to most viewers) very alien social dynamic with great clarity and wit, and we soon find ourselves boiling with discomfort on Balram’s behalf.
“Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or love them behind a facade of loathing?” He wonders in a quiet moment. It’s a question the film teasingly declines to answer, even after things take a turn for the melodramatic, and the time arrives for Balram to turn his employers’ venality and self-regard against them in order to take the next brutal, drastic step in his campaign of self-advancement.
Gourav, a singer turned actor, gives the definition of a breakthrough performance here, with a live-wire charisma that keeps you glued to Balram’s exploits, no matter how unsavoury they may get. But he’s valuably assisted by Rao and Chopra, whose characters’ attitudes towards their employee is relentlessly enraging-in-a-good-way – sometimes they’ll treat him like a beloved rescued stray and sometimes like a recalcitrant donkey, but never like the equal they keep piously insisting he is.
Shot on location in Delhi and Bangalore, and capitalising on those cities’ extraordinary sweep and hubbub in every other scene, The White Tiger can’t help but feel thrillingly expansive. Even though its plot only pivots around the handful of figures named above, it teems with colourful supporting characters, from Balram’s redoubtable grandmother to corrupt politicians and a cabal of fellow drivers who dismiss our hero as a naive “country mouse”.
Yet it’s a punchy, propulsive watch, blown along by snappy editing and a hip-hop-driven soundtrack that stresses that there’s still much fun to be had when hefty themes of inequality and geopolitics are being tackled. And honestly? There really is.
On Netflix from Friday