Little can dent the satisfactions of a rags-to-riches tale well-told, and The White Tiger – adapted from the Booker-winning 2008 novel – delivers the goods. Adarsh Gourav plays Balram, a nobody from a nowhere village in rural India who determines to break free from generations of poverty by becoming his wealthy landlords’ servant.
Though the caste system has hundreds of gradations, Balram informs us, in India there are really only two categories that count: the people with ‘big bellies’, and the poor suckers within them. Balram and his family are very much in the digestive tract of the exploitative Indian system, or, to put it another way (Balram likes a metaphor), they are roosters in a cage, unaware of their enslavement, placid and doomed to the chop. Nothing the family can do, it seems, will ever lift them from their state of grubbing poverty.
But Balram determines to cast off his chains: to become a once-in-a-generation ‘white tiger’ and overcome the strictures of his background by making it – big. Much of the film, which is narrated by an older, richer Balram, charts his rise from manual, half-educated labourer to chauffeur for a Westernised Indian couple, played with slick and glitz by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao.
The film, like the book, is impassioned but not ideological in a straightforward sense: there are no clear-cut goodies and baddies, and no system of governance is brandished as a possible balm. Though Balram grows up worshipping ‘The Great Socialist’ – a politician credited with caring for the poor – when he finally meets his heroine at his employers’ mansion, she proves as craven as they are.
There’s plenty wrong with this film, not least its narrative structure – scenes are overlaid with an irritating voiceover in which Balram reads a letter that he’s written to a Chinese politician ahead of a tech conference they’re both attending. It’s a bizarre framing device that detracts from the drama more than it adds in insight and wit. The film is overlong, too; a tighter edit would have made it still more propulsive.
But in the end the film’s flaws prove surmountable, largely thanks to the rich ambivalence of its outlook and message. Balram is no Slumdog saint: his empathy, devoutness and reforming zeal tussle with darker, more self-centred impulses. In one searing scene, Balram ‘outs’ a rival servant who has spent decades pretending to be a Hindu (in fact, he’s a Muslim, and Balram’s betrayal costs him his job). Priyanka Chopra Jonas is sumptuous as a purportedly enlightened Indian American babe, whose progressive values vaporise the moment her freedoms are put on the line. Her hipster husband Ashok is no less morally compromised: though he treats Balram with marginally more respect than his feudal father, showing a discomfort with Balram’s constant smiling and genuflecting, when push comes to shove, Ashok too proves as venal as the older members of his clan.
Travelling is, erm, tricky right now, and one of the major pleasures of the film is the immersion it offers in the teem and thrash of modern India. Director Ramin Bahrani gives the grand tour; particularly exhilarating are scenes set in high-rise super luxe Delhi apartments and palaces, which soon vertiginously dive into their underbellies: the dark spaces beneath and behind, where the poor toil and spend the pittance that they have earned.
In the end, as Balram slices his way to the top, it’s impossible not to share his elation at his upward momentum. And the film gestures playfully – if not altogether convincingly – towards a future in which Balram’s tale is repeated ad infinitum on a global stage – for the era of ‘the white man’, he gloats, is over; now it is ‘the yellow man and the brown man’ who are on the ascendant.
The White Tiger is released on Netflix on January 22.
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