8 Sep 2021

The White Tiger

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 8 September 2021

The White Tiger is a drama based on a Booker Prize-winning novel about a young Indian man trying to break through the economic and social barriers holding him back. 

Dan Slevin: Because when you scroll through Netflix everything basically looks the same - the same rectangular images, similar tiny plot summaries and inscrutable categories like "Suspenseful, emotional, exciting" - it can be difficult to work out what's straight to video entertainment fodder and what's a festival quality arthouse feature film.

The tentpoles - like Oscar winner ROMA or Scorsese's The Irishman - will sometimes get decent media coverage which can help but we all know there are hidden gems lurking deep in the algorithm, we just don't always know what they are.

The White Tiger is an example. It dropped onto Netflix back in January to little or no fanfare but in pre-streaming times it would probably have been programmed in festivals and then go on to a reasonable life in cinemas. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is like an angry counterpoint to romanticised portraits of modern India like Slumdog Millionaire.

It's adapted and directed by Ramin Bahrani who has made some of the most humane portraits of underdog life of the last 15 years, films like Man Push Cart about a former Pakistani rock star who makes a tenuous living selling coffee and bagels on the streets of Manhattan, or 99 Homes about the Florida eviction industry caused by the global financial crash.

He has an innate empathy with the downtrodden, those that society usually chooses to ignore, and in The White Tiger the Indian caste system, with its strict social and economic separation, gives him plenty to build his outrage on. And, with Adarsh Gourav and Balram, he has an anti-hero that you root for and are repelled by at the same time.

Balram is born a Dalit, what we used to call an Untouchable, in a tiny village but he has high hopes that education will provide a way out of those social constraints. But his father dies of tuberculosis because the village is too far from a hospital and Balram has to give up his dreams of becoming a scholar to try and find a job to support his extended family.

Cynical and philosophical, Balram sees the Indian servant class as like chickens in a chicken coop - they can smell the blood and they know they are next for the chopping block but they never rebel, they never fight back. He is determined to do better.

Winning a job as a driver for the son of a local landlord, Balram starts to see more of how the other half live. The other half? Forgive me. The other 1%. Set in 2005, the story takes place with the background of India's emerging role as a technology outsourcing superpower. Balram's master, Ashok (played by Rajkumar Rao) has just returned to India from New York with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra who also co-produced the film) and he sees a shiny future but his family is mired in the dirty old coal business which requires prodigious bribes to corrupt politicians to sustain.

All the while, Balram is watching and learning, putting up with humiliation after humiliation by this family who barely consider him to be a human being. All of them except Pinky, perhaps.

A terrible tragedy forces Balram to act, but the action he feels obliged to take is equally terrible. For the first half of the film, I was thinking of the world as Dickensian - as if Balram is a kind of David Copperfield figure, making his way in an uncaring world through ingenuity and decency. But the second half has a different literary flavour - it's like a fatalist Russian novel, something by Dostoevsky perhaps.

It says there is no good way out of this trap which is a terribly discomforting thing to believe but it's hard to argue with on this evidence.

The film feels authentic and vivid: the street scenes are noisy and colourful, the hotel suites shiny and golden, the village dusty and barren. Of the actors, I was only previously aware of Priyanka Chopra. She's something of a megastar in India and has illuminated a few American movies as well as marrying the pop star Nick Jonas.

Adarsh Gourav as Balram has an almost impossible job - to play naïve, conniving, victim and aggressor at the same time, a character at the very limit of their capability, struggling to survive. He's great.

The White Tiger is streaming on Netflix now.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)