21 Apr 2021

Review: The White Tiger

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 21 April 2021

The movies have a love-hate relationship with modern, award-winning books. What you gain from the obvious name-recognition advantage, you can easily lose because literary merit doesn’t always translate to the screen. 

However, when Indian novelist Arvid Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Man Booker in 2008, it was snapped up by producer-writer-director Ramin Bahrani.

Bahrani’s reputation as a man to watch preceded him. American-Iranian, he’s a veteran of film festivals, and there was big interest in his adaptation of a famous novel.

The White Tiger.

The White Tiger. Photo: Screengrab

One thing he saw in the project – aside from rise of Asian capitalist subject matter – was that, structurally, it’s one of the most reliable plots there is. In many ways, it’s a gangster, rags-to-riches fable.

Our hero Balram is born in an Indian village near the Chinese border. As he says, if he’s born to be a servant of someone, he’d better pick his master carefully. 

Top dogs in the district are a father and son who shake down the villagers for everything they can get. But it’s the younger son, Ashok – just returned from the United States - who catches Balram’s eye.

Balram decides that he’ll get a job as Ashok’s driver – the fact that he hasn’t got a license yet is a minor detail. 

Once he gets the job, he sets out to endear himself to the decent, if lightweight, Ashok and Ashok’s extremely American wife Pinky.

Pinky is played by the one name attached to The White Tiger – Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who also executive produced the film.  

She provides the eyes for a western audience, wondering why Balram puts up with regular bad treatment but, in India, the idea of someone breaking out of centuries of racial, religious, caste and class prejudice is all but unheard of.  

As rare, as Balram says in his narration, as that rarest of beasts, the albino tiger.

But with no White Tiger, there’d be no story. Balram is determined to find a way to the top, by hook or by crook. 

But there is unlikely to be a fairy-tale ending. This is no Bollywood Slumdog Millionaire, to be saved by the power of true love.

In fact, true love almost proved to be his downfall.  Not his true love, but that of Ashok and Pinky, who decide to take Balram out for a night on the town. 

And to make things even more special, they say, we’ll take over the driving - you sit in the back! Bad idea, as it turns out.

Something goes wrong, and suddenly the liberal western couple are forced to deal with things the traditional Indian way. 

And that means a combination of bribery, corruption and finding the most convenient scapegoat.

This is not only the anti-Slumdog Millionaire, it’s also a tough, brutal assessment of what’s happening in Asia now.

The money comes from China, the labour is mostly outsourced to India. This is the future, and a smart White Tiger like Balram just needs to see what’s going on.

Even with no big names attached, The White Tiger is gripping. And right now is the perfect time for it – it’s up for an Academy Award for Best Script – as audiences start asking inconvenient questions about post-colonial shifts in power.

The final frame is a wide shot of men from the Indian servant-class looking inscrutably straight down the camera. This is the year of Films with No Easy Answers.

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