The White Tiger is based on the book by Indian author Aravind Adiga. Starting much like the book does with an opening email turned monologue to the Chinese premier ahead of his visit to India, the mail sets the tone for the rest of the film. This crime drama is deeply political, entertaining for its performances, storytelling and rags-to-riches tale, but brooding with disdain. Aerosmith’s ‘Eat the Rich’ may have poked fun at the class divide with a tongue-in-cheek send up, which given their success was riddled with irony. The White Tiger has a much more grim outlook in a country with a long history of feudal class structures, at one point having a thousand castes. Nowadays simplified to two, unofficially a universal representation with the middle class disappearing, it uses the metaphor of a chicken coop to explain the relentless master-slave relationship between “employers” and their “employees”.
The Wolf of Wall Street had Jordan Belfort and The White Tiger has Balram Halwai. Born into a poverty-stricken family from the lower ranks of Indian society, he witnesses his father’s death by way of a graphic cremation. Deciding he wants a better life for himself, he sets his eyes on a prospective master as if the man was his idol turned prey. Relaying India’s version of Silicon Valley, Bangalore, the country’s boon when it comes to outsourcing and their knack for entrepreneurship, his ambition is to give voice to his self-taught brand of entrepreneurship. Starting out as a second driver for a wealthy family, he commits himself to them, discovering over time how he can make use of duplicity to forge his own path through cunning and wit.
Adarsh Gourav is a complex protagonist as Balram, whose questionable ambition, searing anger and cutthroat agenda makes him compelling if morally dubious. The focus of almost every scene, his slight frame and posture make him seem harmless and a dreamer as the quest for a better life gets twisted. Supported by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkummar Rao and Vijay Maurya, his constant voice-overs and screen presence ensure this is his show.
At the helm is critically acclaimed director, Ramin Bahrani, who is responsible for the star-studded American film 99 Homes. Adopting the same displaced feeling of the lead, The White Tiger has an ordinary and extraordinary feel. At times seemingly perfunctory in its storytelling, the rich blend of real and unreal, rich and poor, dead and alive offer stark contrasts that make it a little-big film. Capturing India’s highs and lows, there’s something epic about Balram’s journey.
The ruthless drive of The Wolf of Wall Street is present, yet it’s taken from a Slumdog Millionaire standpoint. Scorsese’s film starring DiCaprio played up the American Dream where anyone can hit the big time with hard work, a good idea and sheer determination. Yet, The White Tiger is more slow-boiling in its approach and much less debauched. There’s some violence, disturbing imagery and coarse language, which you may only discover because of the subtitles, but it’s tamer in its presentation. Embodying a see-sawing sentiment much like its lead’s approach to being a successful businessman, it’s also got an inherent ferocity.
This political bent gives it an unsettling feel as a young man risks everything, including its family, in order to rise to the top. The poor are trapped in a cycle of servitude, fearing that any slip ups in their job could cause them harm or in extreme cases their family to be massacred. Fear and a basic education keep the lower caste masses trapped and unable to find wealth outside of crime or politics. It’s a situation mirrored in many modern societies, expressly represented by Adiga in the context of India. This burning undercurrent surges through The White Tiger and feels so direct at times, it could be labeled revolutionary propaganda.
Capturing Balram’s journey from his perspective, it’s easy to see the world he sees… however warped. While dark as a saga of a little criminal becoming a big boss, it echoes Slumdog Millionaire’s wonder and fish-out-of-water adventure. Being labeled a “white tiger” by a teacher who identifies him as being an once-off occurrence in every generation, his self-belief triggers him on a journey to prove himself worthy of the title. While the political slant adds weight and power, making it a faithful adaptation of the book’s driving force, Gourav’s tightrope performance keeps it razor sharp. As with its title, The White Tiger is one of those films of great contrasts and double-edged glory that make it easy to appreciate but difficult to love.
The bottom line: Compelling