‘The White Tiger’ is a Captivating Class Satire

by Hassan Ilahi

Few countries across the world have been as poorly portrayed in movies as India. Hollywood has always been criticized for glorifying the impoverishment of modern India. Western filmmakers tend to emphasize the country’s poverty rather than its upper-class living. To illustrate this fact, acclaimed films such as 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire have contributed towards misconceptions that India is a downtrodden country without any prosperity. However, nothing could be further from the reality. While poverty certainly exists in India, it has been exaggerated to a considerable degree in films that ignore the country’s class system. Therefore, it is rare to see authentic depictions of India in films.

In an industry that often glamorizes Indian impoverishment, Ramin Bahrani’s latest film The White Tiger is a roaring achievement. An energetic, darkly comic and gritty satire, it offers an eye-opening indictment of India’s cutthroat caste system. With his eighth feature, writer/director Ramin Bahrani uses satire to challenge misconceptions held in the West about India. Packed with gorgeous cinematography, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is an impressive adaptation. Although The White Tiger is undeniably entertaining, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and builds to an exaggerated ending that glorifies poverty. Nonetheless, it offers enjoyable entertainment that will satisfy fans of the book.

Set in modern-day Delhi, The White Tiger chronicles the journey of a poverty-stricken servant that aspires to become a successful entrepreneur. Adarsh Gourav stars in the lead role as Balram Halwai, a lower-caste villager that searches for financial prosperity. When he is hired as a chauffeur by a wealthy Indian-American couple, Balram’s wishes are fulfilled. However, what appears to be the perfect job soon turns into a nightmare when Balram is mistreated by his masters. As Balram strives to escape poverty, he challenges societal class divisions.

Writer/director Ramin Bahrani has long been fascinated with themes of class inequality. Ever since he earned worldwide recognition with Man Push Cart in 2005, Bahrani has transformed into an outstanding Iranian-American filmmaker. His directorial debut Man Push Cart offered a compassionate look at the class conflict faced by Pakistani street vendors in New York. With The White Tiger, however, Bahrani has crafted his first scorching Indian satire. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to satirize the class struggles experienced by lower-caste servants in India, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Bahrani draws viewers into the life of an impoverished servant that dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Bahrani’s decision to shoot the movie in various locations across India is risky, but it works tremendously. Working alongside cinematographer Paolo Carnera, Bahrani effectively uses miscellaneous locations to emphasize the disparities between living conditions of lower-class and upper-class Indians. For example, Balram’s impoverished living conditions are portrayed through dilapidated servants’ quarters. In stark contrast, modern highrise apartments immerse viewers into the luxurious lives of Balram’s employers. Bahrani excels at capturing disparities between classes in India, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If themes of class disparity do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see The White Tiger. The film is extremely well-written, and offers an empathetic glimpse at the adversities experienced by lower-class Indian servants. Bahrani’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his willingness to take risks with the source material by using voice-over narration. When adapting famous books to the big-screen, screenwriters tend to avoid taking risks and stick overly faithful towards the source material. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the cinematic experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with The White Tiger. Bahrani successfully utilizes voice-over narration to craft a compelling protagonist. Like Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Balram narrates his rags-to-riches story with witty, intelligent and sarcastic remarks. Through this ingenious technique, Bahrani crafts a strong emotional bond between Balram and the audience. Bahrani creates a multidimensional character whom viewers can easily root for even though he commits horrific crimes. Voice-over narration is a tricky technique to employ successfully in book adaptations. When used inappropriately, it can often become a distraction and hinder the viewer’s engagement. However, it works immensely in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Bahrani keeps viewers engaged in a servant’s fight against poverty.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. The film is an extraordinary showcase for its newcomer lead.

Adarsh Gourav delivers a star-making performance as Balram Halwai. In his first major leading role, Gourav proves to be an extraordinary actor with a knack for playing cunning con-artists. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a mischievous lower-class servant that deceives his rich employers. It’s a demanding role that requires the actor to strike a fine balance between being sympathetic and reprehensible. However, Gourav pulls it off effortlessly. With captivating expressions, he conveys the confidence, desperation and greediness of an impoverished villager that climbs the social ladder to become a prosperous businessman. While Gourav isn’t well-known outside of India, this breakthrough performance will gain him recognition he deserves.

The supporting cast is stellar and also worthy of recognition. Rajkummar Rao is amazing and brings authority to the movie as Balram’s equally compassionate and callous master Ashok. Priyanka Chopra Jonas is phenomenal and imbues humanity into a female master that defies class divisions. And finally, it is hard to not mention Vijay Maurya. As an abusive employer, he brings palpable menace to the movie.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, its unfortunate that The White Tiger lacks the sharp bite of its superior source material. If there’s one domain where the movie stumbles, it is in the pacing department. Bahrani’s decision to tell the story in non-linear fashion is clever and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. Due to this technique, the present-day sequences in which Balram has become a successful entrepreneur aren’t always as entertaining as the flashbacks to his poverty-stricken past. Furthermore, the film suffers from an implausible conclusion. It’s an exaggerated finale that sugar-coats the harsh realities of impoverishment. Whereas this sentimental ending worked in a film like Slumdog Millionaire, it clashes with the realistic tone established in this movie. Consequently, it isn’t entirely successful at bringing the movie to a satisfying closure.

On a final note, it is worth bearing in mind that The White Tiger isn’t a movie that is intended for everyone. Given its harrowing subject matter, the film may not please mainstream audiences. The film tackles provocative topics such as capitalism, government corruption and caste prejudice that may disturb certain viewers. Due to its unsettling themes, “The White Tiger” may not appeal towards commercial audiences.

In the end, The White Tiger is an adequate satire with roaring ambitions that often exceed its claw-like grasp. An entertaining but uneven adaptation, it challenges views held about India in Hollywood. Hopefully, it will open the eyes of Westerners to the roles that caste systems play in determining destinies of citizens in one of the world’s most misunderstood countries.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+