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“The White Tiger” is an incisive satire exploring modern India

Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of the 2008 Booker Prize Winner crackles with biting wit, frenetic energy

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “99 Homes”), “The White Tiger” is a darkly satirical rags-to-riches tale that reveals the ugliness behind India’s entrenched social hierarchy and explores the underdog’s retaliation against the inequitable system. 

That system is related by Balram Halwai, in a reflection that sets the cutting tone present throughout the film:  “In the old days, when India was the richest nation on earth, there were one thousand castes and destinies. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies.”

The protagonist, Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), does eventually “grow a belly”— a symbol of his abandoning his impoverished past to become a self-made entrepreneur. But his ascent on the social ladder is bloody and catalyzed by a ruthless betrayal.

The film, released on Netflix Jan. 13, is a largely faithful adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-Winning bestselling novel of the same title. Though the film begins with an uncharacteristically prosaic freeze-frame voiceover and seems weighed down by narration throughout, “The White Tiger” develops beautifully with its witty, introspective dialogue and vivacious settings. 

Bahrani captures India’s pulsating undercurrent of restlessness, which is emphasized by quick cuts and scenes of aggravated urban crowds amid political tumult. Choked with streams of traffic, the urban terrain of Delhi comes to life under a feverish neon glow.

Balram, a fresh-faced chauffeur working for his affluent employers, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), act as a nuanced lens that captures the city’s darkness — the homeless lining the city boulevards, corrupted bills entering the pockets of heralded politicians, the servants of the rich residing in damp, unsanitary cells below luxurious high-rises. What has become normalized to the point of invisibility is witnessed with a searing gaze.

Gourav’s performance as Balram is riveting. Despite his excessive groveling toward his employers that in no way communicates genuine affection, Balram betrays a sense of hopeful innocence in his pragmatic belief that “a servant who has done his duty by his master” will be treated in kind. Balram envisions that Ashok might someday treat him as an equal and as a trustworthy companion. 

But an unforeseen accident and its irreversible consequences ultimately shatter his fantasies. Balram’s cherubic persona crumbles, and resentment for his masters boils over into hatred. He no longer wants to remain in the dehumanizing position of the servant, waiting to be plucked and devoured in what he calls Indian society’s “rooster coop” — in which the poor offer servitude and labor to the rich until they are worked to death.

Gourav shines in Balram’s transformation, especially during moments of epiphany. He stares at his reflection, as if searching for an explanation for the injustice that plagues his lowly birth. When Balram bares his yellowed teeth at a rusted mirror and questions his neglectful upbringing, Gourav’s narration makes the hurt and anger tangible. When Balram finally breaks free of the shackles of servitude, the actor’s depiction of his emotional outpouring is spectacularly unsettling yet sardonically justified.

Opposite Balram are Ashok and Pinky, the wealthy couple dripping with an unintentional condescension reminiscent of the wealthy parents in Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” Ashok and Pinky have just returned to India from America. Unaccustomed to the typically demeaning treatment of servants, they insist that Balram is part of the family. Nonetheless, like Balram’s constant appeasing smiles, the couple is far from sincere. 

Unlike in the novel, Pinky becomes a more rounded character, allowing Chopra to bring a more human dimension to the lofty role of an alienated upper-class wife. In one scene, she encourages Balram to think for himself. “What do you want to do?” she asks in a rare moment of compassion. 

While the dynamic between Balram and Ashok remains unaltered from the novel, Rao plays the role of Ashok convincingly. In outbursts of emotional conflict and defeat, he successfully captures Ashok’s hypocrisy as he talks big dreams of business expansion but carries out degenerate routines predetermined by his family’s coal empire.  

By the end of “The White Tiger,” there may be lingering questions about morality and righteousness and whether Balram has become what he hates most. The film offers its own biting answer as Balram reflects on his cold-blooded climb to where he is today: “It was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant.”


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